HOUSTON -- Down Howie Kendrick reached and off it went. Carrying far, slicing right, pinging the yellow-coated steel screen of the foul pole in right field. The Washington Nationals were trailing until they weren’t. They were, true to form, down but not done.
The late-May misfits and National League Wild Card Game winners roundly expected to be a quick October exit had, with one swing of the bat from the 36-year-old Kendrick, taken the lead they would not relinquish in a 6-2 victory in Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park. They claimed their franchise’s first crown and completed a clean sweep for the road clubs in a first-of-its-kind Fall Classic.
“I feel like everybody was rooting for [Houston] and we were kind of the underdog in this Series,” Kendrick said. “But it goes to show that you can’t ever count anybody out.”
Stephen Strasburg, who was the winning pitcher in Game 2 and Game 6 while posting a 2.51 ERA, was named the Willie Mays World Series Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet.
From 19 wins on May 23 to ’19 champs on Oct. 30. That’s the story of a Nationals team that played five elimination games, trailed in all of them and won all of them.
They survived and thrived with “Los Viejos” (“The Old Ones”) like Kendrick and an unmistakable affinity for the unexpected ... and for "Baby Shark." They came back to break the heart of the Brewers in the late innings of the NL Wild Card Game. They dispatched the mighty 106-win Dodgers in the NL Division Series behind Kendrick’s Game 5-changing grand slam. They silenced the sizzling Cardinals in an NL Championship Series sweep. And after squandering a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven Fall Classic and returning to Minute Maid Park on the brink of elimination, they summoned the stamina for one last exclamation-earning effort.
“I believe in these guys,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “They believe in each other. And the biggest thing for us is, never quit. We know that. We were 19-31. We didn’t quit then. We weren’t gonna quit now.”
History was made here on many fronts.
Washington, D.C., has its first World Series championship since the 1924 Senators. Kendrick joined the Pirates’ Hal Smith ('60) as the only players to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh inning or later while their team was trailing in a World Series winner-take-all game. Kendrick is also the fourth-oldest player to go deep in a Game 7. The Nats became the first team to win the Series with four road victories.
“All the road teams winning,” said Astros starter Zack Greinke, “doesn’t seem normal.”
So why would the anticipated Game 7 pitchers' duel be normal?
Max Scherzer, making his cortisone-aided comeback from the debilitating neck injury that had made him a no-go for Sunday night's Game 5, didn’t have his typical movement or mastery. He induced just 11 swinging strikes among his 103 pitches in five innings. A viewer only able to tune in every 20 minutes or so would be forgiven for thinking that the Astros had somehow been given permission to begin every inning with two aboard.
And yet, through four innings, the eight baserunners against Scherzer had resulted in just a single run -- Yuli Gurriel's laser beam to the Crawford Boxes for a homer that put the Astros up, 1-0, in the second.
“We put a lot of heat on him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Scherzer. “We made him work. He had almost 20 pitches an inning. We had guys on base. We hit the ball hard. We didn't chase that much. There was a lot of good that we -- almost similar to how we were in Game 1 against him where we just made him earn every out that he got.”
Despite the traffic, despite the tightropes Scherzer kept stringing up for himself, Martinez abstained from having anybody warming in his bullpen. It was Max effort all the way.
“We stay in to fight,” Scherzer said. “That was our motto. We stay in and fight. That’s what I did.”
Greinke, meanwhile, put on a pitching clinic with his awesome arsenal of offspeed stuff. The Nats’ swings included so many “excuse me’s” you would think they were walking through a crowd. The weak contact was such that Greinke, an athletic and gifted defender, had four assists in the first four innings alone.
Slight separation, which doubles as seismic separation on a stage like this, arrived in the fifth, when the Astros finally got a rip with runners in scoring position. It came with -- again -- two aboard and two outs, as Carlos Correa smacked a one-hopper down the third-base line. Anthony Rendon, one of MLB’s most outstanding occupants of the hot corner, dived for the ball, but it kicked off the edge of his outstretched glove and into foul territory, allowing Gurriel to score from second on the single.
By then, Martinez had Patrick Corbin warming, and he went on to replace Scherzer, whose effort was worthy of applause no matter the end result, in what turned out to be a scoreless sixth.
Greinke, on the other hand, lasted into the seventh. But it proved a step too far. His third trip through the lineup hit a stumble when Rendon, the Houston native coming off a five-RBI effort in Game 6 on Tuesday night, smacked a solo shot to left to get the Nats on the board, 2-1. Then Greinke issued a walk to Juan Soto, and his night was done.
Though Gerrit Cole had warmed earlier, Hinch, in that moment, went to his most trusted relief weapon, Will Harris.
“Kendrick and [Asdrúbal] Cabrera was where I had really focused on Will Harris at that point,” Hinch said. “Will has been tremendous for us. I knew I had [Roberto] Osuna, I knew I had Gerrit if need be. Will coming in to spin the breaking ball [is what I wanted].”
Harris got ahead of Kendrick with a first-pitch strike. But his second offering was a 90.6 mph cutter down and away, and Kendrick got bat to ball for the new signature swat of his club’s epic October run and an instantly iconic MLB moment.
“This guy [Harris] punched out Howie at home, screamed and stared in our dugout, and Howie never forgot that,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I said, ‘Boys, Howie remembers this, just watch.’ And then he ends up going oppo right there. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
As Corbin kept delivering big outs in relief, the Nats kept adding insurance. They got a run in the eighth when Adam Eaton walked, swiped second and scored on Soto’s single off Osuna. They got two in the ninth when they loaded the bases and Eaton truly broke the game open with a ground-ball single up the middle that was booted by center fielder Jake Marisnick.
And Daniel Hudson's 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, punctuated by a swinging strikeout of Michael Brantley, completed the capital thrill.
In five short months, the Nationals upended the baseball universe. At the start of the season, they had lost their franchise face, Bryce Harper, to free agency, and they were well south of .500 at a point when evaluations intensify.
But they bonded and bettered and broke through, hellbent on ending their past postseason pitfalls. The result was as original and inspiring an October run as the game could conjure. And an ecstatic ending deep in the heart of Texas.
“We stuck together,” Rendon said. “We had nothing else to lose. We were facing elimination games when people never thought we should’ve been there in the first place, and we just kept on fighting, and we finished on top.”
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.