Column: Kendrick, Nats finally flip script on Game 5

October 10, 2019

AP/Mark J. Terrill

After all these years, why would nine innings ever have been enough?

Every time the Nationals have faced nine innings in Game 5 of the NLDS with their season on the line, things have ended poorly. In three prior games, there were three losses, by a combined four runs. So it’s fitting that, after all this time, it took an extra inning for the Nats to erase their Game 5 narrative, crashing the NLCS party with a stunning, come-from-behind, 7-3 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles Wednesday night.

For once, it was the other dugout with the long faces, that feeling of emptiness, of hopelessness. For once, the big hits came when they needed them, and the biggest left no doubt that the advancing was inevitable. After Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto got the Nats level with home runs on back-to-back pitches in the eighth inning, Howie Kendrick’s tenth-inning grand slam felled the two-time defending National League champions, rendering Dodger Stadium the morgue that Nationals fans are all too accustomed to seeing their home ballpark become.

Any Nats fan being honest with themselves knows they got a little lucky in the Wild Card Game. Luck is certainly part of the game, and so much of it seems to have gone against Washington over the years that they seemed to have been owed one against the Milwaukee Brewers that night.

But they got lucky in a way beyond the bad route by Trent Grisham that allowed three runs to score on Soto’s single, rather than two, giving the Nats the lead. The inning ended on Soto’s TOOTBLAN, and suddenly, before there was time to think, the Brewers had three outs left to keep their season alive. They got a baserunner and hit a shot to the warning track in the ninth, but there was never the mounting pressure on the Nats after they took the lead that inning after inning of elimination baseball squeezes on you.

Wednesday night, that script wrote itself anew. A two-run home run by the opposition two batters in. Another home run in the second. Again, a 3-0 deficit with an ace on the hill. This time, though, Stephen Strasburg didn’t have Stephen Strasburg to piggyback off of him.

The Nats clawed back, again with the crucial rally in the eighth, against Clayton Kershaw, but this time just to tie the game. Again it was Soto in the thick of things, this time launching a majestic, nearly 450-foot blast deep into the Dodger Stadium bleachers.

Kershaw’s personal narrative of postseason failure has only gotten occasional reprieves, perhaps the most notable coming in 2016 against the Nats. He came out of the bullpen with one out in the ninth inning of Game 5 in that series and retired the final two batters. He was the one celebrating on the mound at Nationals Park after striking out Wilmer Difo; he was the one who ended the Nats’ season. There must have been some catharsis in seeing him walk off the mound in frustration, the job unfinished.

But all that merely leveled the score. Kenta Maeda came on and struck out the side, restoring the energy to the Dodger Stadium faithful. Could the Nats come through again, once the nerves had settled?

Extra-inning postseason games produce unlikely heroes. The Chris Burkes and Ramon Hernandezes and Aaron Boones of the world. The David Freeses.

But Wednesday night did not belong to the 36-year-old former Angels infielder in the other dugout, the one who already has a trove of postseason highlights with his name on them. It was Kendrick, Freese’s former teammate in Anaheim; the former Dodger; the oldest position player on the roster; the goat of the series for his defense until he became the hero with one fateful swing.

You didn’t even need to look beyond Wednesday night to find the seemingly scripted parallels. Leading off the bottom of the first, Joc Pederson laced a line drive to the opposite field so hard it went through the chain link fence that separates the field of play from the Dodger bullpen, as bizarre a thing you’ll see happen on a ball field. The next batter, Max Muncy, delivered a home run to put the Dodgers ahead.

In the top of the tenth, after Adam Eaton’s leadoff walk, Rendon hit a double so hard to left field that it stuck in the padding in the wall, another thing you could attend a year’s worth of games and never see twice, if at all. Following an intentional walk to Soto, the next batter, Kendrick, hit the grand slam.

Speaking of parallels, who is waiting, naturally, but the St. Louis Cardinals, the original purveyors of Nats postseason pain. And who will be waiting for them either in Game 1 or 2, but Adam Wainwright, who started Game 5 at Nats Park back when this whole cycle began, in 2012.

The Nationals were the plucky upstarts, then. They were without Strasburg, his arm saved for future moments like the ones that will come next week, like the ones Wednesday night in LA, when he kept his team in the game with four shutout frames after falling behind.

The Nats are no longer at the beginning of a window. Bryce Harper is gone, Rendon is an impending free agent. Even Strasburg has an opt-out after this year. There is no guarantee of what might come next, not just in the next couple weeks, but in the next couple years.

What happened Wednesday night can’t solve all that. All it means is no longer being haunted by Game 5, by the taunts of never advancing to the NLCS. The teams that beat the Nats in Games 5 past didn’t win a title — not the Cardinals in 2012, nor the Dodgers in 2016, nor the Cubs in 2017. Nothing past Wednesday night is guaranteed.

But the playoffs aren’t about tomorrow. They’re about winning tonight. Finally, in Game 5, with everything on the line once again, that’s exactly what the Nats did.

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