Postseason games at Nationals Park, generally speaking, have not been celebratory events. They're usually loaded with tension, usually involve contests that go right down to the ninth inning (or more), and usually see the home team desperate to win and keep its season alive.
That was the typical scene for the first 14 postseason games played on South Capitol Street, beginning with Game 3 of the 2012 National League Division Series and running straight through Game 4 of the 2019 NLDS. The Nats' record in those home games was 5-9. When facing elimination, it was 3-3. Remarkably, they never once took the field in their own ballpark leading a playoff series. At best, they were tied. At worst, they were down.
All of which made the scene before, during and after Game 3 of last fall's NLCS such a breath of fresh air.
The Nationals, by virtue of back-to-back wins in St. Louis to open the series, came home up two games to none. That led to a much more relaxed, celebratory experience at the ballpark when Game 3 began. And by the time the Nats opened up a 7-0 lead en route to an 8-1 victory over the Cardinals, it was a full-fledged party along the banks of the Anacostia.
The team pulled out all the stops for its first home NLCS game. Crowd favorite D.C. Washington sang the national anthem. Famed ring announcer Michael Buffer was flown in (at a hefty price, by all accounts) to introduce the competitors and utter that cheesy, five-word phrase that never fails to leave 43,000 fans roaring: "Let's get ready to rumble!"
Buffer might've gotten them warmed up, but Stephen Strasburg got them jacked up with yet another dominant pitching performance. The right-hander, picking up right where AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez and Max Scherzer left off, retired the side in the top of the first on 10 pitches, striking out Dexter Fowler and Paul Goldschmidt around a comebacker from Kolten Wong.
This crowd was in a joyous mood the entire night. There was no nervous anticipation, only cheers for every positive development and a consistent urging for the players to deliver in anticipation of every big moment.
It took a few innings for the offense to kick into high gear, but once it did that group strung together the kind of two-out rally that defined this entire October run. The key igniter was Adam Eaton, who stepped to the plate with Victor Robles on second and two out in the bottom of the third.
Ron Darling, on the TBS broadcast, offered up an astute prediction: "If you're Yadier Molina, you've got to know Adam Eaton likes to swing at the first pitch in this situation. You've got to make a quality pitch."
Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals starter, did not make a quality pitch. And Eaton did exactly what Darling expected him to do, lacing the first pitch he saw up the middle for an RBI single to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
And they were far from done. Anthony Rendon followed with a sinking liner to left that popped in and out of a sliding Marcell Ozuna's glove. Eaton, busting it around the bases from the point of contact, came all the way around to score and make it 2-0 as the Cardinals began to come undone. Molina, the nine-time Gold Glove Award winner behind the plate, made a half-hearted attempt to catch a wayward pitch from Flaherty and had to chase it down by the backstop while two runners advanced into scoring position. And then Howie Kendrick did a Howie Kendrick thing: He ripped a two-out, two-run double to right-center to complete the rally, give the Nats a 4-0 lead and give the crowd even more reason to celebrate.
Darling would note Strasburg's career record when given at least a three-run lead: 86-1. With a four-run lead in October? Forget about it. The righty was at his best, baffling St. Louis hitters with curveballs and changeups that simply could not be hit with any authority.
Not that he needed any more help from his teammates, but they gave it to him anyway, scoring two more runs in the bottom of the fifth. They came on back-to-back RBI doubles from Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman. And wouldn't you know they came with two outs, the same way the Nats scored all of their first six runs in this game.
Robles, returning to the lineup 10 days after he tweaked his hamstring trying to beat out a bunt at Dodger Stadium, broke the mold in the bottom of the sixth, leading off the inning with a homer to right-center to make it 7-0.
The only question now was if Strasburg could depart with a zero in the run column. He couldn't, but it wasn't really his fault. With two on and one out in the seventh, Paul DeJong blooped a single to left field. It should have left the bases loaded, but when Juan Soto slipped on the grass and fell, JosÃ© MartÃnez raced home from third to give St. Louis its first run of the game.
As Strasburg's pitch count surpassed 110, Fernando Rodney warmed in the bullpen. The 42-year-old reliever would not be needed yet. Strasburg buckled down and struck out Matt Wieters and Fowler to end the inning and earn a massive ovation as he walked off the mound. Strasburg had thrown 117 pitches, struck out 12 (eight on changeups) and had not been charged with an earned run.
Which meant Nationals starters had now combined for 21 2/3 innings in the series without an earned run. In fact, the only two runs the Cardinals scored at all in Games 1-3 came on defensive misplays (Michael A. Taylor in Game 2, Soto in Game 3).
They played the rest of the game, because they were required to play the rest of the game. But both teams' fates had already been sealed. Kendrick and Zimmerman combined to produce yet another run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, making the score 8-1. Rodney and Tanner Rainey would cruise through the top of the eighth and ninth to finish it off and allow Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson to enjoy the night off.
As they filled time during those final innings, the TBS crew gushed over a Nationals club that was about to improve to 15-2 since the final week of the regular season (a 17-game run previously matched only by the inaugural 2005 Nats during their amazing late May/early June march to the top of the NL East standings).
But they also tried to insist the series wasn't over yet. The 2004 Red Sox were invoked. The fact the Cardinals had swept a four-game series from the Cubs in late September was also mentioned as evidence a historic comeback was possible.
Deep down, everybody knew the real truth. The Cards weren't coming back in this series. After years of heartbreak and tense October nights on South Capitol Street, the Nationals were finally in the driver's seat. They were going to play for the pennant the following night and attempt to sweep the series. And anybody holding tickets to Game 5 hoping the series might be extended was going to be disappointed.