HOUSTON — The script ended in predictable fashion. When you’re talking about these Washington Nationals, it’s about that triumphant ending — their backs to the wall, their prospects grim, until they aren’t.
Yes, when you’re talking about the Nationals, it’s often the usual suspects in the cast, too. Like Max Scherzer playing through pain. Like Anthony Rendon, the MVP candidate, and Howie Kendrick, one of the most clutch hitters of the 2019 postseason, turning a game upside down with seventh-inning home runs when hope was running short.
After season upon season of playoff shortcomings, the Washington Nationals won their first World Series with an epic, come-from-behind 6-2 victory in Game 7 over the Houston Astros Wednesday night that made the improbable dream a reality.
The District weathered its 34-year estrangement from Major League Baseball and now will celebrate its first World Series victory since the Washington Senators won in 1924 — 95 years ago this month.
Astros starter Zack Greinke pitched a gem into the seventh inning, when Rendon crushed a pitch into Minute Maid Park’s Crawford Boxes in left field — just the Nationals’ second hit and first run of the night — cutting the Houston lead to 2-1.
Greinke walked Juan Soto and was replaced by reliever Will Harris. Kendrick stepped up next and knocked a cutter to the right-field corner, hitting the bottom of the foul pole for the go-ahead home run.
In an instant, one of the Nationals’ most underwhelming performances of the postseason turned into a one-run lead late in Game 7.
“You know, there’s guys in a big moment you want up there, and those are two guys that when a big moment arises, you want them up there,” manager Dave Martinez said. “And they’ve come through all year long for us in big ways. They have the knack to just stay calm and do what they need to do, and you saw that tonight.”
Kendrick’s thought as he watched his home run sail toward the foul pole was simply, “Stay fair.” It did precisely that.
Though the first batter to have to face Harris and his fresh arm, Kendrick didn’t think of his job as particularly difficult.
“I’ve seen (Harris) three times in this Series,” he said. “He got me out here, he punched me out at our place and then he stared in the dugout and yelled, ‘Let’s go!’ So that type of stuff, I don’t really like that too much. But Tony, we came back here, Tony hit a homer off of him yesterday, and today it felt good to get him today.”
After Kendrick’s homer, Washington found it was open season against every Astros reliever that followed. Soto singled off Roberto Osuna in the eighth to score Adam Eaton. It seemed like a crucial insurance run at the time, but Eaton turned around and brought in two more on a single.
Astros ace Gerrit Cole warmed up in the bullpen at one point, but manager A.J. Hinch later said he only planned to use Cole as the closer in the ninth inning if the Astros were leading.
If the Astros had left Greinke in the game during the seventh, could he have settled back in and prevented more runs, keeping Houston in control? Hinch didn’t think it was too early to yank his starter.
“It’s a decision I’ll have to live with,” Hinch said. “I’ll think about it. And I don’t know what would have happened had I left him in. But that was kind of where I targeted based on where the game was going and what we had available to us.”
Meanwhile, Scherzer needed 103 pitches to get through five innings, but he kept the deficit to a manageable 2-0 — remarkably pushing through three days after missing a scheduled start with severe neck spasms.
Scherzer said after the game that his neck felt fine.
“We stayed in the fight, even when I got grinded apart by them,” Scherzer said. “They did an unbelievable job against me. We were down 2-0. We stayed in that fight. The offense came through and scored big. And man, what a feeling.”
Yuli Gurriel led off the bottom of the second with a home run, and Scherzer allowed two straight singles after that before escaping the jam. Meanwhile, the Nationals managed only one hit their first time through the order. After three innings, the disparity in pitch count had already reached 55 for Scherzer, 28 for Greinke.
Greinke’s slower stuff kept the Nationals visibly off balance. During the first four innings, Nationals batters made weak contact that resulted in five dinky groundouts fielded by either Greinke or catcher Robinson Chirinos. These mostly came on changeups and curveballs, the slowest of which came across at 70 mph.
The Astros plated their second run in the fifth inning, when Carlos Correa ripped a grounder down the third base line under a diving Rendon to score Gurriel from second.
But crucially, Scherzer didn’t allow further damage and stranded nine Houston runners over his five innings of action. Lefty starter Patrick Corbin was finally instructed to warm up in the fifth and gave three stellar innings of relief to hold Houston at two runs.
“Today we were thinking (Corbin) would get one inning,” Martinez said. “He went out for one inning, we asked him if he could go out another inning, he said, ‘Yeah.’ Asked him again if he could go out for a third inning, he says, ‘Whatever you need.’ After the third inning I said, ‘I think we got you covered. Great job.’”
Closer Daniel Hudson got Michael Brantley swinging for the final out. He threw his glove in euphoria and the party began.
Washington used to be known for its playoff curse. Now it’s in an unfamiliar position as the country’s new “Titletown.” Thanks to the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win in 2018, Washington has seen major championships in two of the four major leagues in a 16-month span. The World Series also comes three weeks after the Mystics’ first WNBA title.
D.C. is taking on a new meaning: the District of Champions.
Let the celebrations begin.