(Note: You can watch Game 7 of the World Series tonight on MASN at 7 p.m.)
There's a strange anticipation to Game 7 of the World Series that doesn't exist any other day of the year. It's the ultimate game, and so there's excitement for the prospect of that. But it's also guaranteed to be the final game of the year, so there's a tinge of sadness that comes with that realization. No matter what happens, no matter who wins, there will not be another ballgame to come after this.
The Nationals had never participated in a Game 7 prior to Oct. 30, 2019. The Senators were involved in two: the well-known Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, when Walter Johnson came out of the bullpen to help lead them to a 12-inning victory and their only championship, but also the lesser-known Game 7 of the 1925 World Series, when Johnson actually blew a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the eighth to the Pirates and helped cost his team a chance at back-to-back titles.
The storyline entering this most recent Game 7 was clear: Anything and everything was possible. Max Scherzer was starting for the Nats, but anybody could conceivably appear out of the bullpen (maybe even Stephen Strasburg one night after he threw 103 pitches). Zack Greinke was starting for the Astros, but A.J. Hinch had plenty of options beyond the veteran right-hander, including ace Gerrit Cole (who was widely expected to pitch at some point, though the FOX crew kept mentioning it would probably only happen at the outset of an inning, not in an attempt to bail someone else out of a jam).
The respective leashes on the starters figured to be short. So what happened? Both guys were great.
Well, that's not exactly true. Greinke was great, utterly dominant, in fact. Scherzer, on the other hand, found himself trying to pitch his way out of trouble all night, yet more often than not, he managed to wriggle free, suffering only minimal damage.
The first inning had been Scherzer's weak spot throughout the postseason, but it wasn't on this night. He was sharp during a scoreless bottom of the first, needing only 15 pitches and throwing his fastball 96-97 mph. Any fears about the state of his neck or back disappeared pretty quickly.
Scherzer was not, however, flawless. He struggled in the bottom of the second, an inning that began with Yuli Gurriel's laser into the Crawford Boxes on a hanging slider and could've been much worse. Following the leadoff homer, Scherzer gave up back-to-back singles, caught a huge break when Robinson Chirinos popped up a surprise bunt attempt, watched as Ryan Zimmerman scooped up a chopper that actually ricocheted off first base and then as Juan Soto made a diving catch of George Springer's sinking liner to left on a 3-0 pitch to end a harrowing inning.
If felt like the Astros really got to Scherzer that frame. In reality, they only scored one run.
That one run loomed large, though, because the Nationals could not get anything going against Greinke. The wily veteran faced the minimum through four innings, needing only 41 pitches to do it. There were some well-struck balls, and there were some nice plays by Greinke on comebackers, but at the end of it all, there was only one hit on the board for the visitors.
Scherzer, on the other hand, continued to dance with the devil. He got into another jam in the third and for a split second thought he gave up a big blast to Yordan Alvarez, whose drive to center only reached the warning track. The three-time Cy Young Award winner wouldn't even record his first strikeout of the game until the fourth, unprecedented territory for him. He would not enjoy a 1-2-3 inning at all in the game.
Davey Martinez afforded Scherzer more rope than some managers might afford their Game 7 starter, but he finally had Patrick Corbin begin to warm up in the bottom of the fifth, when Houston had two on with two out. At this point, opponents had been a remarkable 1-for-27 with runners in scoring position against Scherzer all postseason, but then Carlos Correa ripped a ball past a diving Anthony Rendon at third base, and now they were 2-for-28.
Gurriel scored from second base to extend the lead to 2-0, but here's a subtle aspect of the play that helped save the day for the Nationals: In diving to try to make the play, Rendon nicked the ball with his glove and deflected it at more of an angle so it veered into foul territory behind third base and caromed off the railing. That allowed Trea Turner to race over and retrieve it and get the ball back to the infield before Alvarez could think about trying to score from first. Had the ball made it all the way down the line and into the left field corner, it probably would've been a 3-0 game. Instead, the deficit remained two runs.
And though they were still facing Greinke, two runs didn't feel terribly daunting to a lineup that had more than proved it could mount a late rally in these elimination games. "The Nationals may just be playing exactly to their playbook," John Smoltz said on the broadcast during the top of the sixth. "They were down late in a lot of these games. They've still got a lot more innings to come back. They've still got that in them. The Astros would like to get a little more cushion on these guys."
Greinke would not succumb in the sixth, though. He quickly retired the side and walked off the mound having tossed six scoreless innings of one-hit ball on 67 pitches. He was on cruise control. "The start of his life," Joe Buck declared, and it sure looked that way at that moment.
Martinez finally went to his bullpen for the bottom of the sixth, with Corbin called upon to pitch in relief for the fifth time in the postseason (as opposed to only three starts). Martinez also had Tanner Rainey warming up immediately in case of trouble, suggesting he wasn't expecting length out of Corbin.
But then the lefty got through the sixth on 10 pitches, inducing a double play grounder out of Jose Altuve, so maybe he would return for another inning.
First things first. The Nationals needed to get on the board at last. And the top of the seventh looked like their best opportunity to do it, with the heart of the order due up and set to face Greinke for the third time in the game.
Had Greinke labored at all to this point, Hinch very well might have put Cole on the mound to begin the seventh. But how could he pull his starter after six scoreless innings on only 67 pitches? He couldn't. So Greinke retook the mound for the seventh, and instead of Cole, it was Will Harris who immediately warmed in the bullpen in case of trouble.
And there most definitely was trouble.
The most important half-inning in Nationals history opened in innocuous fashion, with Adam Eaton grounding out to short. But then Greinke tried to fool Rendon with a 1-0 changeup, and everything changed. Rendon wasn't fooled at all, and he bashed that pitch well over the left field wall to give the Nats life at last.
As FOX's graphic would show later, Rendon had come up to bat seven times in the seventh inning or later of elimination games that month. Those seven plate appearances produced the following results: walk, home run, double, double, home run, double, home run. "Come on," Smoltz said incredulously. "Are we sure about that? That's unreal."
Yes, it was real. And it was spectacular.
As important as Rendon's homer was, Soto's subsequent plate appearance might've been even more critical to the Nats' chances. He took a tough 2-1 pitch at the knees that was called a ball by plate umpire Jim Wolf, then ultimately drew a walk. If not for that sequence, Hinch might very well have left Greinke in to face Howie Kendrick. Instead, with the tying run now on base, he summoned Harris from the bullpen.
And you know what happened next.
The pitch, as has been reiterated over and over since, was not bad. Not at all. It was a cutter down and away, right on the outside corner. The only thing Kendrick could try to do with it was hit it the other way with a moderate amount of power. Somehow, some way, he produced enough power on that lunging swing to slice the ball down the right field line and ... clang.
It took a split-second for everyone in the park to realize what had just happened. Buck's call: "This ball is ... gone for a home run! ... Nationals on top! ... Howie Kendrick has made it 3-2!" The crowd was stunned, but on the broadcast you can clearly hear the sizeable portion of Nats fans in attendance roaring with delight.
How significant was the home run, not merely in this World Series but in the history of World Series? Well, there have now been only four lead-changing homers in Game 7 of the Fall Classic: Yogi Berra and Hal Smith both did it in 1960 (though both were dwarfed by Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer in the ninth), Willie Stargell did it in 1979 and Kendrick did it in 2019. That's some impressive historical company.
So now the Nationals led, but they still needed to record nine outs to finish it off. And they only led by one run, so this wasn't exactly comfortable territory.
Both Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle were available, and both figured to play a part in these final innings. But Corbin was given the opportunity to start the seventh, and he didn't give his manager any reason to make a switch, pitching around a two-out single by Gurriel to post another zero and bring the Nats within six outs of the title.
Among their most impressive qualities throughout the postseason, the Nationals didn't just find ways to take leads late. They also kept finding ways to add on insurance runs, often blowing games wide open. So it was that they tacked on another big run in the top of the eighth when Eaton drew a walk, stole second (his first of the entire postseason) and scored on Soto's two-out single to right.
So now it was 4-2 in the eighth. Would Martinez turn to his closers now? Nope. Corbin took the mound for his third inning of work, and he mowed down the bottom of the Houston lineup, striking out Correa with a fastball, getting Chirinos to ground out and striking out Jake Marisnick with a slider that left catcher Yan Gomes pumping his fist as he trotted off the field.
Corbin had thrown 44 pitches over three scoreless innings, and up in the owner's box, Ted and Mark Lerner might well have been thinking that alone was worth the $140 million they paid the lefty.
And so the Nationals took a 4-2 lead into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Yes, the Nationals took a lead into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. And then they extended it.
They loaded the bases against Joe Smith, yet another reliever not named Gerrit Cole. Hinch brought in Jose Urquidy (also not named Gerrit Cole) to face Eaton with the bases loaded and watched as the scrappy No. 2 hitter singled up the middle to drive in two more runs and make it 6-2. And behind the dugout from his box seats, Mike Rizzo might well have been thinking that alone was worth trading Lucas Giolito to the White Sox.
And so it was time for the bottom of the ninth, the Nationals holding a four-run lead, Hudson trotting in from the bullpen to attempt to finish the fight once and for all. And he did it with ease. He got Springer to pop up. He struck out Altuve. And as Nationals teammates, coaches, staffers and fans around the world held their collective breath, he got Michael Brantley to swing through a 3-2 slider down and in - the same pitch he threw to strike out Corey Seager in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium a lifetime ago - and set off the biggest baseball celebration D.C. had experienced in 95 years.
Gomes raced to the mound to celebrate with Hudson, with Corbin, Scherzer and Strasburg first out of the dugout to join them. Rendon, Zimmerman and AsdrÃºbal Cabrera embraced near second base. The three outfielders converged and jumped up and down. The coaching staff hugged Martinez in the dugout. Rizzo grabbed hold of his son, Michael, and his soon-to-be-wife, Jodi, from their box seats. The Lerner family teared up in their suite high above. Fans gathered on South Capitol Street hooted and hollered and threw drinks into the air. And in living rooms across the region and around the world, every Nats fan participated in his or her own way, having seen the dream actually come true.
There would be a long celebration that included the trophy presentation, the awarding of the series MVP to Strasburg, a champagne-and-beer-soaked clubhouse, a late night of partying in Houston, a joyous flight home the next day, a parade down Constitution Avenue after that, followed by a special night at a Capitals game and a trip the White House.
It was all such a blur, and at the time, it was perhaps difficult to fully appreciate what the Nationals had just done. They were 19-31. They battled back to reach the postseason. They came from behind to win the wild card game. They came from behind to win the NLDS for the first time. They dominated the Cardinals during an NLCS sweep. And then they came from behind two more times to win Games 6 and 7 of the World Series on the road.
"There's been bigger underdogs to win the World Series," Smoltz said near the end of the broadcast. "But I can't imagine there's been a better journey."
Anyone who witnessed that remarkable journey won't disagree.