Surely there were some among the throng of 43,675 on South Capitol Street tonight who saw the home team holding a 6-0 lead over the visiting Cardinals in a postseason game and felt a sudden shiver go down their spines.
Those folks must still be shell-shocked by the events of Oct. 12, 2012, a day that lives in infamy around these parts because of what happened after the home team took a 6-0 lead on the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. That night has haunted this franchise and its fans for seven years.
And because of all of that, they now have only one more step to take to bring the World Series to the District of Columbia for the first time in 86 years.
There was no reason to be afraid tonight, only reason to celebrate an 8-1 dismantling of the Cardinals to open a commanding three games-to-none lead in a best-of-seven NL Championship Series that could be wrapped up as soon as Tuesday night.
Yes, the Nationals have four chances to win the pennant. The way things are going right now, they better order the champagne and beer ASAP.
“It’s hard to think about it,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It’s a little surreal, and I think that’s why it’s important that we don’t look too far ahead. We want to show up and go 1-0 tomorrow.”
As much as they might be trying to block it out until it’s done, this group of Nationals that began the season 19-31 and then had to claw its way back into playoff contention, then come from behind to win the NL wild card game, then win two elimination games in the NLDS, now is in complete control of the NLCS.
Dating to their final homestand of the season, the Nationals are 15-2, having already eliminated the Phillies, Indians, Brewers and Dodgers, with the Cardinals on the verge of joining that list. It’s only the second 15-2 stretch in club history, previously achieved only by the inaugural 2005 team during its surprising early-summer surge to the top of the NL East standings.
“I haven’t even realized that, to be honest with you,” Howie Kendrick said. “I think the biggest thing is that just means we’re playing really good baseball. ... It’s been fun. We just try to play good baseball every day. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.”
Starting pitching has defined this October run, and especially this series to date, with Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez combining to pitch 21 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run. But tonight the Nationals also brought out their lumber with their most impressive offensive performance of the month.
And they did it against Jack Flaherty, merely the NL’s best pitcher during the season’s second half.
With a four-run rally in the bottom of the third that included two-out RBI hits by Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Kendrick, the Nationals managed to score more runs off Flaherty in one inning than the rookie right-hander gave up during the entire month of September.
“I think one of our approaches was just to try to get at him early and try to get him out of the game as quickly as possible,” Eaton said. “And try to grind out at-bats. He’s got three or four really good pitches. We just had to grind him out and get to him as soon as possible.”
And they didn’t let up once they got to the St. Louis bullpen. Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman delivered back-to-back, two-out RBI doubles in the bottom of the fifth off John Brebbia, extending the lead into dreaded 6-0 territory.
Reason to panic? Not in the least. Victor Robles, returning to the lineup 10 days after straining his hamstring, sent a leadoff homer into the right-center field bleachers in the bottom of the sixth, and now the Nats were comfortably up by a touchdown.
And when the old guys, Kendrick and Zimmerman, teamed up for another round of back-to-back, two-out hits in the seventh, the outcome of this game was no longer in doubt and the overflow gathering at Nationals Park could just sit back and enjoy the ride.
“We’re feeling the love, and we love it,” Eaton said. “It truly makes a difference. All of our guys feel it. In the ninth inning, everyone’s standing up, cheering. You can kind of feel the pulse of the area. We appreciate them showing up.”
A pregame ceremony that featured a D.C. Washington national anthem, a ceremonial first pitch by 10-year-old cancer patient Parker Staples (who also threw out the first pitch on May 24) and a heavyweight championship intro and signature “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” call by Michael Buffer was more than enough to get the sellout crowd fired up.
“It was nuts,” Scherzer said. “You’ve got Michael Buffer setting the tone? I mean, it makes for a good day. The fans were nuts. What an atmosphere for us to get behind. You could feel the energy in our dugout coming from the fans. What a moment.”
Then the on-field combo of Strasburg on the mound and the Nationals lineup at the plate took everything to another level.
Strasburg shot out of the gates like a right-hander possessed, or at least determined to try to keep up with the insane pace already established in this series by Sánchez and Scherzer. He retired the side in the top of the first on 10 pitches, striking out both Dexter Fowler and Paul Goldschmidt to keep the crowd roaring.
Then, the unthinkable: A base hit. Off a Nationals starter. Prior to the seventh inning. Marcell Ozuna was the Cardinals batter to finally break through with an early hit in this series, leading off the second with a double down the left field line. Even that, though, was immediately snuffed out when Strasburg snagged José Martínez’s comebacker and then offered up a textbook example how to run directly at a runner who’s hung up between bases.
So it was for Strasburg, who gave up a few more hits than his rotation mates but did not give up a run. He got out of a fourth-inning jam inducing a flyout from Yadier Molina that raised his pitch count to 66 and perhaps suggested he would not reach the seventh inning tonight.
Strasburg had other ideas. He cruised through the fifth and sixth and retook the mound for the seventh with his pitch count at 90. And though things got dicey after three singles and a slip in left field by Juan Soto that led to an unearned run with one out, the man on the mound never let any of it faze him.
He struck out Matt Wieters. He struck out Fowler. And he walked off the mound having thrown 117 pitches to a thunderous roar from an appreciative crowd that had so many reasons to be appreciative on this night, the night the Nationals moved to within one step of the World Series.
“I think it’s been just such an amazing year,” Strasburg said. “And I think it’s really been great just because of where we’ve had to come from. We’ve got such a great group of guys, and it’s fun. It’s fun being around the guys and going out there and competing together. I think you ask anybody in there, we just want to stay together and keep playing.”