Home confinement re-watch: 2019 NLCS Game 4

They packed themselves into Nationals Park, nearly 44,000 strong, for a party 86 years in the making. They came to watch a major league team from Washington win a pennant for the first time since 1933. And when the home ballclub stormed out to a 7-0 lead after one inning, all that was left for everyone to do was count down the outs until it was official.

Game 4 of the National League Championship Series was not a simple, by-the-book, three-hour party, though. It wound up including a couple of way-too-tense moments for a game that began in such lopsided fashion, most notably a harrowing top of the eighth that saw the previously lifeless Cardinals somehow bring the go-ahead run to the plate.

In the end, that was just a little bump in the road. As Davey Martinez would so perfectly declare later in the evening: "Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places." And the Nationals and baseball fans in D.C. had never been to a more beautiful place than the one they collectively visited on Oct. 15, 2019, the night they reached the World Series.

Nats-Celebrate-NLCS-Sweep-Sidebar.jpgRe-watching the Game 4 broadcast, you realize what a surreal night that was. The Nationals had never led a postseason series by more than one game, let alone owned a commanding 3-0 series lead. Realistically speaking, everyone already knew they were going to win the pennant, whether that night or the next night or (god forbid) a few nights later back in St. Louis.

And the way the first inning went should only have confirmed that notion. So why were so many people so nervous throughout the game? It's not just that the Cardinals mounted a last-ditch rally, cutting the deficit to 7-4 in the fifth and loading the bases in the eighth. It's that the Cardinals were the team doing this to the Nationals, a scenario folks around here were all too familiar with.

Admit it, you thought about Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series that night, didn't you? You were terrified these Nats were going to blow a huge lead to the Cardinals just like the first playoff team did.

Thing is, even if they did blow it in Game 4, the Nationals still would've led the series three games to one. With Aníbal Sánchez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg scheduled to pitch the remaining three games.

Besides, by this point, had we all come to realize the 2019 Nats were different? This wasn't a team that shrunk when the going got tough. This was a team that rose to the occasion every time it faced adversity.

Before there was any adversity in Game 4, there was the greatest first inning in Nationals history.

Patrick Corbin took the mound seeking to do the impossible and match the pitching performances of Sánchez, Scherzer and Strasburg to open the series. Then he went out and struck out the side in the top of the first, each punchout coming on a 95 mph fastball. The crowd loved it.

And that was only the preamble to the bottom of the first, in which the Nats lineup took down Dakota Hudson before the Cardinals rookie knew what hit him. Hudson faced eight batters. Seven of them reached base. He threw only 15 pitches. Fifteen pitches!

The Nationals, obviously, had a plan against the right-hander. They came out hacking. Trea Turner singled on a 2-0 pitch to get things started. Adam Eaton doubled on the first pitch he saw. Anthony Rendon also swung at the first pitch and lofted a sacrifice fly to center to bring home the first run.

Juan Soto, who had been off all series until a late-night session in the cage with hitting coach Kevin Long following Game 3, sent a 1-0 pitch down the left field line for an RBI double to make it 2-0 and force St. Louis manager Mike Shildt to get veteran Adam Wainwright warming in the bullpen in a hurry.

After Howie Kendrick was intentionally walked, Ryan Zimmerman smoked a ball down the third base line. Tommy Edman made a spectacular, diving play to backhand the ball and throw a laser to second, but Kolten Wong dropped it, leaving everybody safe.

The Cardinals, pretty clearly, were rattled. And if that wasn't evident yet, it sure was moments later when Victor Robles blooped a ball into shallow right field and watched as three defenders let it fall harmlessly to the ground. The sellout crowd hooted and hollered as the scoreboard flashed 3-0, then let loose again when Yan Gomes hit the very next pitch to left field for a two-run single to make it 5-0 and send Hudson to the earliest shower you'll ever see a starter take in a postseason game.

Wainwright would settle things down eventually, but not before surrendering a two-run single to Turner (also on the first pitch) to complete the seven-run rally. All told, the Nationals scored seven runs on six hits, an intentional walk and an error. The only two outs they made came on sacrifices (Rendon's sac fly and Corbin's sac bunt). They scored seven runs on 18 pitches. Eighteen pitches!

The good news: The Nats led 7-0 after one inning and were going to win the pennant that night. The bad news: They still had to play eight more innings of baseball before it was official. And those eight innings were at times interminable.

Corbin remained electric for four innings. He struck out two more in a 1-2-3 second. He struck out two more in a scoreless third. He struck out three more in the fourth, though he also surrendered a solo homer to Yadier Molina.

By the time the top of the fifth arrived, it became clear Corbin had hit a wall. Maybe he expended too much energy and emotion during those first four innings. Maybe the Cardinals just started to figure him out. Whatever the case, he clearly wasn't going to be around much longer, especially after he loaded the bases with nobody out on two walks and a single.

As Tanner Rainey began warming in the 'pen, Corbin gave up one run on a slow groundout from Edman, then surrendered a two-run double off the right-center field wall to José Martínez. Now this was getting serious, the Nationals' 7-0 lead down to 7-4 with one out in the fifth and Corbin's pitch count rising.

Davey Martinez struck with his starter, though, and was rewarded for that show of faith when Corbin struck out both Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna. It took 39 pitches, but he made it through the fifth with a three-run lead. And in a series that saw his three rotation mates outpitch him, Corbin still struck out 12 batters in only five innings!

That earlier-than-planned exit, though, put pressure on the Nationals bullpen to extend itself for the first time in the entire series. Martinez now needed 12 outs from relievers. He mapped out a plan that would involve only three arms - Rainey, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson - and hoped it would work. It did, but there was one more harrowing moment to come.

Rainey did his part with a 1-2-3 top of the sixth, further establishing himself as the third-most reliable option out of the Nationals 'pen. Doolittle then came through with a critically important, nine-pitch top of the seventh. Because he was that efficient, the lefty was able to retake the mound for the eighth, buying Hudson a bit of time.

The top of the eighth, though, saw that aforementioned harrowing moment send a few hearts fluttering around the ballpark. Doolittle got two quick outs to open the inning but then gave up a line drive single to Ozuna at the end of a long at-bat.

So in came Hudson for what would be a four-out save. Except that first out proved far more difficult to notch than expected. Battling his worst command of the postseason to date, Hudson drilled Molina on the elbow with a 1-1 fastball, bringing the tying run to the plate. He then walked Paul DeJong to load the bases and bring the go-ahead run to the plate.

As many in the crowd stood with hands clenched and lips pursed, Matt Carpenter battled Hudson through a mighty intense at-bat. It finally ended with a sharp grounder to second, one that Brian Dozier (just inserted for defense) nearly booted, prompting a long look back from Zimmerman as the inning finally ended.

The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. The lead remained three runs, and now there were only three outs to go. And yet, Hudson needed to throw 15 high-stress pitches just to record his first out, and now he had to return for the top of the ninth.

There was no tension in that final inning, though, only anticipation and ecstasy from the home dugout and throughout the stands as the unlikely became reality. Hudson got Wong to fly out to left. He got Matt Wieters to pop up to the catcher. And he got Edman to send the fly ball to center field that landed in Robles' glove and set off the biggest celebration South Capitol Street had ever experienced.

Fireworks shot off overhead. Players mobbed each other at the center of the diamond. Mark and Judy Lerner embraced at their seats next to the dugout. Mike Rizzo beamed from his box on the club level.

As a makeshift stage was being assembled near second base, the TBS crew gushed about the newly crowned NL champs and appraised their chances of doing this one more time against the still-undetermined American League champs.

"They have the pitching to win the World Series," Brian Anderson said.

"They've got the offense to go with it, also," Ron Darling added.

And they had as much momentum as any team in recent memory. Dating to the last week of September, the Nationals had gone 16-2 and eliminated (in order) the Phillies, Indians, Brewers, Dodgers and Cardinals.

They would now be forced to wait a full week before taking the field again. They had already pulled off a remarkable run to reach their first World Series. Who knew the final step in this journey would be even more remarkable?

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