Ask someone to create a list of the best players in Nationals history, and you’re going to find plenty of consensus.
Max Scherzer is on there, probably at the top, with Stephen Strasburg right behind him. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Bryce Harper most likely round out the top five, in one order or another. Ryan Zimmerman certainly deserves a spot. Then you’ll start getting some diverging opinions as supporters make the case for the likes of Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond and Patrick Corbin and Trea Turner and Jayson Werth.
That’s 12 players who have defined this franchise since it arrived in town 16 years ago.
And yet none of them, arguably, had as much impact on the Nationals as Howie Kendrick.
Think about it. Do the Nats get over the hump and win a postseason series for the first time without Kendrick? Do they win their first World Series without him?
The answer: Maybe. Maybe someone else would’ve driven in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th at Dodger Stadium, though probably not in a fashion as dramatic as Kendrick’s grand slam. And maybe someone else would’ve pushed across the tying and go-ahead runs in the final innings of Game 7 at Minute Maid Park, though probably not via one swing off a near-perfect pitch on the lower outside corner.
Kendrick’s importance to this franchise cannot be overstated. And that’s why his (somewhat unexpected) retirement announcement earlier this week resonated so much with so many people, probably in a way that won’t soon be matched.
Howie Kendrick and the Washington Nationals are inextricably connected for all eternity now. No mention of the 2019 title can be uttered without Kendrick’s name. He’ll come back to the ballpark sometime in 2021 and receive a roaring ovation from a crowd, but the roar he’ll get when he comes back to town for the 25-year reunion in 2044 will be just as loud and heartfelt.
The first line of his obituary will begin: “Howie Kendrick, the consummate professional hitter whose October heroics lifted the Washington Nationals to their first championship in 2019 ...”
That’s how much impact Kendrick had here. And this is a guy, mind you, who took only 12.6 percent of his career plate appearances while wearing a curly W on his helmet.
Kendrick ranks only 33rd in Nationals history with 808 plate appearances, sandwiched between Jose Vidro and Nyjer Morgan. Jesús Flores came up to bat 206 more times than Kendrick did. Danny Espinosa came up to bat 2,164 more times!
Kendrick established his legacy, of course, in the postseason. But don’t discount what he did during the regular season. During his four seasons here, he batted .316, slugged .511 and posted an .873 OPS. And during the 2019 regular season, he hit .344, slugged .572 and compiled a .966 OPS.
Kendrick was no one-hit October wonder. He was a critical part of the Nationals lineup throughout the 2019 season, which too many folks seemed to forget early on in the postseason. If you want to take a fun trip down memory lane, go find the tweets after Howie committed his third error of the National League Division Series. Then read what those same people said about him three hours later.
Davey Martinez knew a couple mistakes in the field weren’t reason to bench Kendrick. Shoot, he knew 16 months earlier how valuable the guy was to his team.
When Kendrick ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2018, the negative impact on the club was immeasurable. The Nationals not only lost his bat in their lineup. Perhaps more importantly, they lost his presence in the clubhouse.
We roll our eyes sometimes at the notion of clubhouse leadership and what kind of difference it actually makes. In Kendrick’s case, there is no debate. Everybody in the organization understood how much they missed him the rest of the 2018 season as he rehabbed at home in Arizona.
(If there was only one silver lining to Kendrick’s gruesome injury, of course, it was the fact he was replaced on the roster by a 19-year-old rookie who only weeks earlier was playing in Hagerstown. Who knows when Soto would’ve gotten the call if not for Kendrick’s injury?)
That Kendrick made a complete comeback from the ruptured Achilles at age 35 is remarkable in itself. We also tend to forget how big a question mark he was heading into the spring of 2019. He didn’t make the opening day lineup, not because of the Achilles but because of a hamstring strain. Little did we realize at the time what that meant.
Kendrick’s hamstring never did return to 100 percent health. Martinez had to manage his playing time through most of the 2019 season, and he required another trip to the injured list. And when he still was suffering from the same injury to the same leg this summer, he needed one more trip to the IL.
Turns out this was the final IL stint of his career.
As good as he was when he was on the field, Kendrick could no longer deal with truly the hardest part of the job: Keeping himself in physical condition to be able to take the field. We’ll never fully appreciate what these guys do every day for hours before first pitch and following the final out to make themselves available to play. That’s what ultimately leads so many into retirement, not the sudden inability to hit a baseball.
And make no mistake, Kendrick can still hit a baseball with authority. As the great Dave Jageler pointed out the other day, his final at-bat in the big leagues was an RBI double in the ninth inning Sept. 5 in Atlanta, driving in a key insurance run. The ball left his bat at 98 mph and made a beeline for left-center field.
As he coasted into second base, Kendrick smiled wide. Josh Harrison entered from the dugout to pinch-run for him, and Kendrick jogged back to the dugout, where teammates doled out high-fives.
He had no way of knowing that would be the end of his playing career. He remained on the active roster three more days but did not appear in a game. On Sept. 9, he was placed on the IL with a hamstring strain.
He didn’t quit, he kept rehabbing and held out hope he might be able to return for the final week of the season. He couldn’t pull it off.
And now, after several months at home thinking it over with his family, Kendrick has decided to hang up his spikes. It’s not the way he envisioned his career ending. But really, how many athletes’ careers do end exactly as they envision?
Besides, we won’t remember how it ended. We’ll remember the grand slam in L.A. and the clang of the foul pole in Houston exactly three weeks later. We’ll remember the hoist of the NL Championship Series MVP trophy from the makeshift stage behind second base. We’ll remember the race car driver celebrations with Adam Eaton in the dugout. We’ll remember the doubles to the gap, and we’ll remember the wide smile on his face.
And we’ll remember the remarkable impact Howie Kendrick had on a Nationals franchise that will never be the same without him.