LOS ANGELES — It was the mother of all hump days.
For the first time since their move to D.C. in 2005, the Washington Nationals have won a playoff series. Even better, they did it on a Wednesday.
“I don’t even know what day it is right now,” said Davey Martinez, the second-year manager who smuggled live camels into spring training last year in a light-hearted effort to acknowledge the elephant in the locker room.
Eighteen months later, after whiffing on the playoffs in 2018, his Nationals are finally over the hump, thanks to a stunning comeback against the Los Angeles Dodgers that left the sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium shell-shocked.
When reliever Clayton Kershaw — that’s right, reliever — struck out Adam Eaton to end the top of the seventh inning with Los Angeles leading 3-1, the Dodgers had a 90% probability of winning. But in the top of the eighth, with the score unchanged, Kershaw surrendered a leadoff homer to MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, who sent a 1-0 offering from the three-time Cy Young Award winner sailing over the wall in left-center field. On Kershaw’s next pitch, a slider, 20-year-old Juan Soto crushed a 449-foot bomb to straightaway center to tie the game.
“It’s obviously huge,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was the Nationals’ first draft pick in 2005 and was around for all four of Washington’s previous playoff fails. “We’ve never done it before. A lot’s been made out of that. I think I’m really proud of what we’ve done, even though we haven’t gotten out of the first round before. But to do it, to beat a team like that, a really good team over there, it really did take everyone.”
It took Stephen Strasburg settling down after allowing a pair of home runs within the first seven batters that staked the Dodgers to a 3-0 lead that seemed insurmountable with stud righty Walker Buehler on the mound for L.A.
It took four innings of shutout relief from the infamous Washington bullpen, highlighted by Patrick Corbin, who was shelled out of the pen in Game 3 but tossed 1⅓ perfect innings on Wednesday to prove that relievers — even converted ones — have short memories.
It took those back-to-back jacks from Rendon and Soto, which marked the second time in Kershaw’s Jekyll-and-Hyde career that he has allowed homers on consecutive pitches in the postseason (he has never done it in the regular season).
Last but not least, it took Kendrick’s monster slam, which instantly flipped the script on what had been a forgettable four-and-nine-tenths games for him, both at the dish and in the field.
“I try not to let those mistakes affect me a whole lot,” said Kendrick, who committed three errors and was hitting .217 in the series prior to his big blow. In his first four at-bats Wednesday, the 36-year-old infielder went 0-for-4 with two whiffs and one rally-killing double play. But his huge hit in the 10th more than made up for all his transgressions.
“As a team, mistakes are going to happen,” he said. “Guys pick me up. As a team, you have to pick each other up. It’s good to return the favor.”
Anthony Rendon couldn’t be happier for Howie Kendrick coming back from an error to send the Nationals to the NLCS with a grand slam.
“He’s the epitome of a professional hitter,” Rendon said of Kendrick, whose .344 average in a part-time role this season was the highest in the majors among players with at least 300 at-bats. “He’s what? He’s, like, 45 years old and still doing this. But, man, I mean, we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to make errors, we’re human, we’re not perfect people. That’s a part of the game. He’s not going to give up. He’s just going to continue to keep on trucking, and that man can hit. So he did what he needed to do.”
Kendrick also did what only one other person in the history of the game has ever done. With his 10th-inning salami, he became the second player to hit a grand slam in extra innings of a playoff game, joining Nelson Cruz, who did it in walk-off style for the Rangers against the Tigers in 2011. Although Kendrick’s blast didn’t end the game — at least not officially — it essentially did. In doing so, it ended Washington’s string of postseason heartbreak.
The fact that this particular edition of the Nats achieved what no other before it could came as no surprise to GM Mike Rizzo.
“We’ve been playing playoff-caliber baseball since May 24 because we dug ourselves a hole,” said Rizzo, whose team went 19-31 in its first 50 games and then won eight straight to close the season in order to host the wild-card game. It’s a stark contrast from the previous four times Washington made the playoffs as a division winner, coasting into October with little if any battle-testing.
“We’ve been playing that type of baseball, with that mindset, for such a long time. I think that aided us in trying to win this game in this park,” Rizzo said.
Depending on how much you believe in karma, maybe the day of the week helped a little, too. Here’s a peek at how the calendar intersected with the finale of each of the Nationals’ early exits:
2012: Lost 9-7 to the Cardinals on a Friday
2014: Lost 3-2 to the Giants on a Tuesday
2016: Lost 4-3 to the Dodgers on a Thursday
2017: Lost 9-8 to the Cubs on a Thursday
In other words, this was the first time an NLDS involving the Nationals ended on a Wednesday — not that anyone in the winning clubhouse seemed to be aware of that.
“I did not think about that. That’s crazy,” Rizzo said, moments after relievers Hunter Strickland and Tanner Rainey poured cold beer over his bald head. The double-fisting GM, who was holding a green bottle of Cava Campo Viejo champagne in each hand, didn’t mind one bit. “It’s the best brain freeze you’ll ever have.”
As frozen as Rizzo’s cranium was, it didn’t prevent him from being able to think ahead to Friday’s series opener in St. Louis.
“We haven’t reached our goals yet,” he said, implying that the dromedaries Martinez imported into camp last year — the camels that had one hump — were inaccurate and that perhaps the two-humped Bactrian variety would’ve been more appropriate. He isn’t the only one who feels that way.
“It’s just the start,” said Soto, his feet immersed in the half-inch puddle of cold beverage that had collected in the middle of the cramped visitors clubhouse, when asked what it feels like to taste postseason success. “We’re just starting right now. We’re gonna get more.”
If Soto turns out to be prophetic and the Nationals can topple the Cardinals in the best-of-seven NLCS, they might want to consider not letting it go to a sixth game. And they might want to avoid sweeping, too.
After all, Game 5 is on a Wednesday.