For a team that had to scratch and claw its way back from a 19-31 start to the season, that had to excel in late September to clinch a spot in the National League wild card game, that had to come from behind to win that do-or-die game against the Brewers and that had to come from behind again to win a do-or-die game against the Dodgers to capture its first ever postseason series, this felt too easy.
Up seven runs in the first inning in search of a four-game sweep of the NL Championship Series? Were the Nationals really going to coast to a pennant like that?
No, they were not. They were going to have to work a bit harder for it. They were going to have to fend off a last-ditch comeback attempt from a Cardinals team that looked dead in the water at night’s outset but somehow still gave itself a real chance to win Game 4 tonight and extend the series at least one more day.
And then? And then the Nationals rediscovered the mettle that has defined this remarkable October run. Pushed to the brink of disaster, they dug deep and hung on to win. And now they’re going to a place this town hasn’t been in a very long time.
The World Series is going to be played in Washington, D.C., for the first time in 86 years.
A pennant is going to be raised high above the scoreboard at Nationals Park, one that will occupy the empty space next to the 1924, 1925 and 1933 flags representing the original Washington Senators franchise, one that has long been saved up for just such an occasion for this city’s third baseball franchise, which survived a tenser-than-it-should-have-been 7-4 victory before a throng of 43,976 to sweep St. Louis and advance to its first Fall Classic.
“It was everything I’ve dreamed of,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said. “Sellout crowd. Standing room only. The crowd going wild. I couldn’t picture it any differently. It was unbelievable.”
Lerner, who took over control of the organization last summer from founding principal owner Ted Lerner, got to watch his father hoist the Warren C. Giles Trophy, awarded annually to the NL champions, on his 94th birthday.
“I want to tell our fans: This is for you,” Ted Lerner, an usher at the 1937 All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium, told the crowd from the makeshift stage that was assembled behind second base.
“For it to happen tonight, on his birthday, for a trip to the World Series?” Mark Lerner said. “You can’t even write a script for that. It’s unbelievable.”
Equally unbelievable: The Nationals disposed of the Cardinals so quickly that they now must wait a week before taking the field again against either the Yankees or Astros for Game 1 of the World Series next Tuesday night.
That’s a just reward, though, for a ballclub that has put together one of the great fall runs in recent history. With 16 victories in their last 18 games, the Nationals have now eliminated the Phillies, Indians, Brewers, Dodgers and Cardinals - and enjoyed four champagne and beer celebrations - in the span of three weeks.
“Every one gets better and better,” manager Davey Martinez said. “You can never get enough. I told the boys: One more. Let’s have one more champagne pop, and it will be a lot more gratifying than this one.”
The first 30 minutes of this game were as joyous for the Nationals and their fans as the first 30 minutes of any baseball game can possibly be. The home team scored seven - yes, seven - runs in the bottom of the first, leaving South Capitol Street rocking like never before.
And the way Patrick Corbin initially took that 7-0 lead and ran with it, striking out 10 batters through his first four innings of work, there was no reason for anyone in the park to start having any doubts.
But then, doubts. Way too many for comfort.
“I’ve seen it before from that team,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was on the field seven years ago when the Cardinals rallied from a six-run deficit to stun the still-young Nats in their first postseason appearance. “So I knew they weren’t going to quit. I’ve said this multiple times to a lot of interviewers: That team over there and that organization, it’s one of the best. I knew they weren’t going to give up. I knew they weren’t going to roll over.”
Corbin, who had to expend a good amount of energy to record all those strikeouts, hit a wall. He gave up a solo homer to Yadier Molina in the fourth, but the real trouble came in the fifth, when the Cardinals loaded the bases with nobody out, then started chipping away.
Tommy Edman’s bases-loaded groundout brought home one run. José Martínez’s double to the gap in right-center brought home two more, trimmed the Nationals’ lead to 7-4 and left more than a few hearts in the stands in the pit of folks’ stomachs.
Corbin would finish the fifth with a flourish, striking out Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to give him 12 on the night. But he had to empty the tank to do it, and so after five innings and 94 pitches, he was done and the Nationals bullpen was tasked with recording the final 12 outs of this game.
How did the much-maligned, worst-in-baseball-during-the-regular-season bullpen handle that scenario? With aplomb. And a few blood-pressure-raising moments sprinkled in for good measure.
Tanner Rainey enjoyed a clean top of the sixth. Sean Doolittle enjoyed a clean (and quick) top of the seventh, needing only nine pitches. That allowed the lefty to return to open the eighth, in which he got two outs but then allowed a single to Ozuna that brought Martinez out of the dugout and signaling for Daniel Hudson.
Hudson, knowing he needed to record four outs to finish this thing off, made everyone sweat a bit more when he plunked Yadier Molina in the back and then walked Paul DeJong, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in a game his team once led 7-0.
“I mean, we started swinging the bats from the get go,” Martinez said. “At first you think: ‘Man, that’s awesome. We’re probably going to score a bunch of runs.’ And it turns out we didn’t. That was it.”
No problem. Hudson got Matt Carpenter to ground out to second. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. And Hudson carried the momentum all the way to the ninth, when he notched the final three outs required to set off the biggest celebration a baseball diamond in D.C. has experienced in 86 years.
“Obviously walking a tightrope like that is never a lot of fun,” Hudson said. “I made it a little bit harder than I needed to. But you just try to reset. You know you’ve got to get three outs in the ninth. And I think the break actually kind of helped my adrenaline a little bit, and kind of calmed me down.”
The overflow crowd was geared up and ready to go from the very beginning, roaring for Elena Delle Donne and the WNBA champion Mystics during pregame ceremonies. Then the game started and the volume in the park ratcheted up to a level never before heard in these parts.
Corbin was initially responsible for that, striking out the side on 13 pitches in the top of the first, all on mid-90s fastballs. He didn’t even need to break out his wipeout slider in that opening frame of dominance.
And all this was merely the opening act for the greatest bottom of the first in Nationals history.
One by one, they stepped to the plate against Dakota Hudson. And one by one, they did something productive. Trea Turner singled. Adam Eaton doubled. Anthony Rendon lofted a fly ball to medium-deep center field that initially jolted the crowd but merely served as a sacrifice fly appetizer for what was still to come.
Juan Soto sent a ball down the left field line for an opposite-field RBI double to make it 2-0, the decibel level continuing to rise. How loud did it get? Loud enough to rattle the supposedly fundamentally flawless Cardinals.
After intentionally walking eventual series MVP Howie Kendrick, St. Louis watched as rookie third baseman Edman made a diving stop of Zimmerman’s hot smash. Then watched as Kolten Wong couldn’t hold onto Edman’s throw to second, leaving everybody safe and the bases loaded for Victor Robles.
Then, the most egregious gaffe of all: Robles hit a high, looping ball into shallow right field. Either Wong or Martínez could’ve made the play. Neither did, with Martínez looking scared out of his mind as the ball fell to the turf, the third run of the inning scored and the crowd hooted and hollered with delight.
Yan Gomes’ sharp single through the left side of the infield brought home two more, made it 5-0 and brought manager Mike Shildt out of the visitors’ dugout to pull his young starter, who retired only one of the eight batters he faced.
In came Adam Wainwright, the ageless Game 2 starter suddenly appearing out of the bullpen way before anyone expected. And after retiring Corbin on a sacrifice bunt, he gave up another two-run single, this time by Turner, this one played with less than 100 percent effort by left fielder Marcell Ozuna.
It was 7-0. In the first inning. And the crowd was ready to spend the rest of the night in full-blown celebration mode.
“We always want to start fast,” Eaton said. “Especially when you’re up 3-0. You want to start fast. It doesn’t always happen like that, of course. But we wanted to try to get on them early. You can say it all you want, but to actually put it into fruition is different.”
Could it really be this easy? No.
But that didn’t make this any less satisfying for a team and a town that had waited a very long time to experience this moment.
“Look, I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my career: Game 162, Game 163, World Series in ‘08 (with the Rays), 2016 (with the Cubs), 108 years waiting to get,” Martinez said. “But this right here, to me, tops everything I’ve ever been through. I mean, I’m so proud of the guys, honestly. They could have folded. They didn’t.”