With trio of late blasts, Nats finally get over the hump (updated)

LOS ANGELES - On a warm morning in West Palm Beach in February 2018, Davey Martinez did something that raised a few eyebrows and made even more eyes roll. He gathered his Nationals team together and then directed everyone to watch as coaches Bobby Henley and Tim Bogar rode in on a pair of camels.

The point, Martinez explained, was to offer a simple metaphor. This Nationals franchise he had just taken over as manager had been unable to get past the first round of the postseason, falling four times in the National League Division Series, three times in a do-or-die Game 5 they at some point led.

It was time, Martinez told his players, for this team to get over the hump.

It took 20 months, a failed 2018 season that did not include any playoff baseball and a wretched 19-31 start to the 2019 season that left plenty of pundits calling for the manager to be fired. But on a cool October night at Dodger Stadium, the Nationals finally did it. Yes, on a Wednesday, they finally got over the hump.

Kendrick-Crosses-Plate-Blue-After-Slam-NLDS.jpgIn a winner-take-all game for the ages that will do plenty to wipe out the awful memories of those previous losses, the Nationals got back-to-back late home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to tie the game in the eighth, then what can now be said without question is the biggest blast in team history: a 10th inning grand slam from Howie Kendrick that lifted Washington to a 7-3 victory over the 106-win Dodgers and sent this ballclub to its first appearance in the NL Championship Series.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Martinez said at the end of a wild clubhouse celebration, soaked in champagne and beer. “I’m stuck right now in the moment. I’m just so proud of these guys and what they’ve done. I just want to wake up tomorrow, get on that plane to St. Louis and feel good that we’re playing again.”

The Nationals - yes, the Nationals - will fly to St. Louis and on Friday night will open the NLCS against the Cardinals, hoping to carry this mojo with them to the Midwest and ultimately win Washington’s first pennant since 1933.

“We were never satisfied with winning the wild card or winning the wild card game,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Yeah, this year we had plans, like we do every year, like we do each and every year, to advance to the World Series. We still have a fighter’s chance right now, and we feel good about ourselves.”

They have a chance because of Kendrick’s blast to straightaway center field off right-hander Joe Kelly, which brought a roar from the small gathering of Nationals family members seated in the loge section behind the plate and brought boos from everyone else in the sellout crowd of 54,159.

“I can’t describe it,” Kendrick said. “It’s one of the greatest moments of my career. Being able to come through in that situation, it’s what we dream of.”

The homer served as a fitting cap to this series for Kendrick, the veteran hitter who had been so important to the Nationals all year long but had come up empty too many times over the last week, both in the field and at the plate.

“Look, what I know from Howie is he’s going to give me everything he has,” Martinez said. “It may not always be good, but at the end of the day, I know what I’m going to get. And I couldn’t be more proud of him just staying in the moment. Things happen in this game, but we worked really hard at keeping him healthy all year to get him here today. I’m so proud of him. I mean, huge, huge moment for him and for this team.”

Adam Eaton opened the 10th inning rally with a leadoff walk. Rendon then ripped a double off the left field wall, his third extra-base hit in a span of five innings. With first base open, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts elected to intentionally walk Soto and leave Kelly in to face Kendrick, who had been 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a double play.

“It’s funny, earlier in the series I had another player tell me: That gives me the red-ass when guys get walked in front of me,” Kendrick said. “And he ended up hitting a nice homer. As a hitter, you’re like: ‘Man, they’re really going to do that!’ You want to go out and try to make them pay. And I think every guy in this room takes that with a chip on their shoulder, and they’re going to try to do damage.”

Which is exactly what he did to Kelly’s 0-1 fastball, registering at 97 mph. The ball soared to center field and cleared the wall, the grand slam that completed yet another improbable rally from a Nationals team that made this its calling card over the last five months.

The Nats dugout erupted, the L.A. fans booed (or left the park altogether) and Sean Doolittle prepared to pitch the bottom of the 10th, which he completed - thanks in part to Michael A. Taylor’s diving catch of Justin Turner’s sinking liner to center for the final out - to set off a wild celebration in the middle of the diamond by the visitors.

“That was awesome,” Doolittle said. “He kind of rolled over, and I saw a bunch of guys in the middle, and Trea started going nuts. I looked and our dugout was all on the field already. I was like, ‘All right, I guess he caught it!’ “

All of this came at the end of another fantastically compelling October ballgame between these two star-studded clubs. It began with Stephen Strasburg giving up two early homers to leave the Nationals shocked. It continued with Walker Buehler wriggling his way out of a few jams, thanks to some stellar defense behind him.

It saw Kurt Suzuki depart after a scary hit-by-pitch in which a Buehler fastball ricocheted off Suzuki’s wrist and then struck him in the face. (Suzuki, who participated in the postgame celebration, said afterward he’s OK, though he’ll need to be evaluated again before he’s cleared to play.)

And it saw the latest bit of eighth inning heroics from the two guys who have meant more to the Nationals lineup than anyone else: Rendon and Soto, who took down none other than Clayton Kershaw in the process.

For all the craziness surrounding them, the Nationals came up to bat in the top of the eighth and had to feel at least a little bit comfortable with the situation. After all, they’d just been in this exact same position eight nights earlier and emerged victorious.

Down 3-1 in a winner-take-all game, facing one of the toughest lefties in the sport? Been there, done that.

“It dawned on us in the seventh,” Doolittle said. “It was the same situation as the wild card game. We were down 3-1 in the seventh going into the eighth. Obviously a little bit different cause we were on the road. But feeling like we’re very much in the game. And feeling like we’re going to find a way to win. I can’t describe it. I can’t put it into words, but nobody panics.”

Kershaw had entered to finish out the top of the seventh, striking out Eaton with two on and two out. Now he returned for the eighth, this time facing perhaps the best 3-4 combo in the majors this season. And all it took was three pitches for the Nationals to tie the game.

Rendon got it started, somehow ripping a 1-0 pitch that was below his knees deep to left for the leadoff homer. Soto then dug in and walloped the very next pitch 449 feet to right-center for the most no-doubt homer you’ll ever see in this ballpark, which was left in stunned silence for a few seconds before some then began booing the future Hall of Famer on the mound.

“For me, just try to enjoy it,” the 20-year-old Soto said of his mindset in that moment. “Say: ‘God help me. Help me the most you can. You put me here. That’s why I’m here. So just help me.’ And he did. It was amazing.”

Roberts sheepishly signaled for Kenta Maeda from his bullpen, a move surely plenty of folks here wished he had made two batters earlier, then watched the right-hander do what he did all series: blow away every Nationals batter he faced.

The game now tied, Martinez asked the lefty from his rotation to come through in a big spot and keep the score right there. Which is exactly what Patrick Corbin did. Three nights after giving up six runs during a disastrous relief appearance, he posted a zero, striking out Cody Bellinger and David Freese with the go-ahead runner on base, sending this one to the ninth deadlocked.

If you missed the first two innings of this game and want to know what happened, just think back to the wild card game at Nationals Park. The resemblance was uncanny.

Strasburg, like Max Scherzer on that night, immediately put the Nats in a 2-0 hole. He gave up a leadoff double to Joc Pederson (which was initially ruled a home run but reversed once it was clear the ball went through, not over, the left field fence) and then served up a towering home run to Max Muncy.

Dodger Stadium was thumping, and Strasburg looked out of sorts. And it only got worse when Kiké Hernández led off the top of the second with another homer, this one just beyond Taylor’s leap in deep left-center. Again, this perfectly mirrored the wild card game, in which Scherzer also served up a leadoff homer in the second to leave the Nationals in a 3-0 hole.

The problem that night: Scherzer was too amped up and couldn’t find the strike zone. The problem this night: Strasburg couldn’t get the Dodgers to bite on the curveball that was so effective for him in Game 2, allowing them to sit on his fastball and swing as hard as they could.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” Strasburg said. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Yep, just as Scherzer did eight nights earlier, Strasburg figured things out. He began throwing his curveball for strikes. The Dodgers could no longer sit on his fastball. And now the big right-hander was in a groove. He retired eight in a row from the third through the fifth innings, and that would’ve been 11 in a row if not for Kendrick’s error on a routine grounder to second (his third of the series).

All of this left Martinez facing a catch-22 decision in the top of the fifth: With two on and nobody out, Strasburg’s spot in the order came up. Down three runs, the conventional play would’ve been to use a pinch-hitter. But given the bullpen options available to him, Martinez needed to keep Strasburg in the game and try to get a couple more innings out of his bulldog.

So Strasburg went to the plate, instructed to bunt the runners over. But he couldn’t do it and wound up fouling off a 3-2 pitch for the first out of the inning. Trea Turner then swung badly at a breaking ball way out of the strike zone for the second out. And when Eaton sent a fly ball to right, the rally had been quashed.

The good news: Strasburg did his part on the mound. He got through the fifth and sixth innings unscathed, striking out the last three batters he faced, and sprinted back to the dugout having thrown 105 pitches and given his team a chance after the near-disastrous start to his evening.

“After that first inning I saw a guy that just said: ‘You know what, I’m just going to go out there and control the game,’” Martinez said. “And did he that. He threw up four zeros for us and kept us in the game, and that’s what we needed.”

At that point, the Nationals had finally gotten on the board against Buehler, getting a leadoff double from Rendon and an RBI single from Soto.

It wasn’t much, but it left the Nationals trailing 3-1 as they entered the late innings. Just like in the wild card game.

The only question now: Would they find a way to rally late once again to keep their season alive? And would they finally get over the hump?

“We talked about that on the field,” Doolittle said. “We were taking our team picture on the mound, and as we’re lying down a bunch of guys are asking where the camels were! I’m so happy for (Martinez). Hopefully, when Howie hit the grand slam, he was able to relax and enjoy the end of the game a little bit.”

Asked if he knew what day it was, Doolittle (like most ballplayers) admitted he had no idea. He was informed it was Wednesday.

“Hump day!” he exclaimed. “Yes! Yes! I love it!”

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