Washington Post: For World Series champion Nats, the team that wouldn’t die, there was no doubt, just hope

Oct. 31, 2019

HOUSTON — In the end, one last time, they were dead and found life. What was this, the 33rd time that happened this month — one for each of the summers Washington went without baseball? The parade route through downtown Houston had been mapped out, and the Washington Nationals reoriented it to the northeast, to Constitution Avenue. They travel with defibrillators and don’t care how often they use them.

On Wednesday night, in the seventh game of the World Series, the doctors on call were Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick. They will be remembered in the District — and well beyond — for the seventh-inning home runs that turned yet another certain loss into yet another improbable win. But if anyone wants to single them out, they will call in the rest of the Nationals who finished the Houston Astros with a 6-2 victory Wednesday night, because over the course of a rollicking summer and an inconceivable October, this team danced together, this team hugged each other, this team won as one.

“That’s what we’ve done all year,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured player. “What a group of guys. It’s unbelievable. Everything I could have imagined — and more.”

The Washington Nationals are World Series champions for the first time in franchise history. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
The Washington Nationals are World Series champions for the first time in franchise history. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Let your mouth form the words and sing it out loud: The Washington Nationals won the World Series. Repeating that sentence is allowed. Say it enough, and someday it may even feel normal.

That day, though, wasn’t Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Nationals trailed the Astros — winners of 107 games, champions two years ago, heavy favorites this whole series — 2-0 in the seventh inning. That deficit, written in black and white, doesn’t seem daunting. In Game 7, it felt gaping.

“The impact, the magnitude, it kind of felt more than what it actually was,” Rendon said. “But it was still [2-0]. We knew we were still in the game. We didn’t doubt each other.”

How to doubt a group that was 19-31 in May yet played the final game of the World Series? There was a wild-card victory in which they trailed in the eighth inning, a division series in which they needed to win the final two games and the sixth game of this series, in which they trailed in the fifth. So by Wednesday, we had learned what this team was about. There is no doubt. There is only hope.

The Nationals celebrate on the field after their 6-2 victory in Houston. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
The Nationals celebrate on the field after their 6-2 victory in Houston. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
“That’s how this group plays,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Even when things were bad, even when it seemed like there was no way out back in the spring, they were total pros. They never wavered. They had something special.”

Even before the homers from Rendon and Kendrick — not to mention Patrick Corbin’s brilliant outing in relief — that was obvious about this team. They won the World Series, Washington’s second, joining only the 1924 Senators. More importantly, they transformed what their town — which watched those Senators relocate twice — believes is possible from its baseball team. Having baseball back doesn’t mean there’s only pain. Having it back can bring bliss.

There are kids in the District now who know nothing of life without this crazy sport. Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington for the 2005 season. The Lerner family, local real estate tycoons, was granted the keys in 2006. What, exactly, did they buy?

“We had to get a lot better to be at the expansion-franchise level,” Rizzo said. “No depth anywhere. We didn’t have much of a scouting and player development staff. We were very bare bones on almost each and every level.”

Back then, a night such as Wednesday — and moments such as Rendon’s and Kendrick’s — seemed fictional. From 2006 to 2010, the Nationals lost 91, 89, 102, 103 and 93 games, respectively. Losing seemed ingrained. The World Series was a television program.

And then the 2012 team broke through with a division title. The growth was slow. The pivot — in both expectations and possibilities — seemed sudden.

“You’re really talking about ’08 to ’12, so four years of growth for an organization to then be expected to make the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “And then all of a sudden, if you don’t get past the first round of the playoffs, you’re a huge disappointment. So it all happened kind of fast.”

Which makes Wednesday night — and the month that led to it — hard to process in the moment or even overnight. So much was accomplished over October, what with four previous games when a loss meant welcome to winter. Instead, they won and extended fall.

So to the seventh inning of Game 7. Given everything that happened from then on, try to remember how dead the Nationals felt to that point. Zack Greinke, the veteran Houston right-hander, looked as if he controlled the ball on a string. Through six innings, Washington’s offense against him: Juan Soto’s second-inning single and Kendrick’s fifth-inning walk.

“Just try to keep on going,” Rendon said.

“What choice did we have?” Zimmerman said. “It’s the last game.”

The miracle, to that point, was that Houston’s lead was only 2-0. Max Scherzer, the $210 million pitcher who was essentially signed to pitch in this game, tried to shake off a neck issue that had cost him his scheduled start in Game 5. He was nothing if not game, but his stuff was not good. The question ahead for the winter didn’t seem as if it would be, “How in the world did the Nats do that?” It seemed as if it would be, “Why in the world did Manager Dave Martinez stick with Max for so long?” Combine nine Astros left on base through five innings with Greinke’s easy mastery, and a 2-0 game somehow felt as if it were 7-0.

“But these guys, they’re confident, they really are,” Martinez said. “And they don’t lose that confidence or that focus regardless of the situation.”

No one more so than Rendon, their flatlining superstar. It was Rendon who had pushed the Nats to Wednesday night with a two-run homer in Game 6. It was Rendon who could get them back in it in Game 7. Only the strongest stethoscope can detect his pulse.

“Things are going crazy,” Rizzo said, “and he’s yawning in the batter’s box.”

So, then, ho-hum, Greinke’s 1-0 change-up sent out to left field. Life, where there was none. To that point, in the Nats’ five elimination games this fall, Rendon had seven plate appearances in the seventh inning or later. The results: walk, double, homer, double, homer, double, homer.

“He’s one of the most impressive superstars in our game,” Houston Manager A.J. Hinch said.

His heroics meant nothing if Kendrick didn’t follow them up. “He was my pick to click,” Rendon said. After Greinke walked Soto, his last hitter, Hinch went to Will Harris, the veteran reliever. Kendrick got an 0-1 cutter. He clicked — and clanked it off the foul pole in right.

The lead now in hand, Kendrick raced back to the dugout to dance. The home run was for the guys right there, of course. For Strasburg, whose masterpiece in Game 6 helped propel them here — and earned him MVP honors. For Adam Eaton, who couldn’t wait to shift gears in a pretend car at Kendrick’s side on the bench. For Zimmerman, the franchise leader in every meaningful category, often described as its face but also its conscience and soul. For all of them.

On the field afterward, Zimmerman grabbed a massive flag — bearing the words “Nationals” and “champions” — and waved it at the enormous throng of red-clad fans behind the visitors’ dugout. He then found his father and buried his head in his shoulder, a teary embrace. Rizzo held the trophy high above his head on a makeshift stage, then carried it down onto the field.

“I might be like Ovi,” he said, referring to Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning captain, “and sleep with this thing.”

Such problems to consider, unimaginable a generation or a decade or — heck — even four innings earlier.

Now that it’s done, though, remember not just that they won but howthey won. The 2019 Washington Nationals taught us all lessons — about patience and belief, about faith and fortitude, about finding life where none seemed to exist. They are champions because of all of that, even if — right now or next month or next year — it’s unfathomable they did it at all.

Denise Michaels