Howie Kendrick lay in a heap on the outfield grass at Nationals Park, a grimace creasing his face.
The diagnosis: A torn right Achilles tendon. During an otherwise nondescript first game of a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 19, 2018, just eight weeks before his 35th birthday, Kendrick’s career was suddenly in question.
Seventeen months later, Kendrick had one of the great days of his career on Monday night. And this is a man who just last week hit a grand slam to secure a National League Division series upset over the Dodgers.
For the first time since 2008, back when he was a third-year, part-time player for the Los Angeles Angels, Kendrick hit three doubles in a game. That outburst helped put the Nationals one win away from the World Series in an 8-1 victory that gave them a 3-0 series lead in the National League Championship Series.
“I guess some of the best things come from the unexpected moments,” Kendrick said.
A two-out double in the third inning gave Washington a 4-0 lead. With two out in the fifth, Kendrick did it again. That one drove home Anthony Rendon to make it 5-0. Kendrick scored the sixth run when Ryan Zimmerman followed with a double. One more two-out double in the seventh inning set the stage for yet another Zimmerman double and Kendrick’s run made it 8-1.
Maybe this should be no surprise. Kendrick has always been able to hit. He batted .344 in 121 games this season. Now 36, Kendrick allows that he can’t play every day. So Washington manager Davey Martinez used him a few times a week. Kendrick started 70 games - 35 at first base, 18 at second base and another 10 at third with seven games in American League ballparks as the designated hitter. He came off the bench 51 more times.
It all helped keep Kendrick fresh and, other than a 10-day stint on the Injured List at the beginning of August with a hamstring strain, it kept him healthy, too.
“He wants it, and the rest of his teammates feed off of that, and they see it,” Martinez said. “We're all big fans of Howie. Every one of us in that clubhouse, and what he does on the field, off the field. He's been that quiet leader for us all year long.”
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle remembers their battles in the late innings of A.L. West games when he pitched for the Oakland A’s and Kendrick was still with the Angels. Almost every at bat became a war of attrition. You might get Kendrick out. Most of the time he took a piece of you with him back to the bench.
“I saw more than enough of him when he was in Anaheim and I was in Oakland. He just grinds out at bats. He doesn’t give you anything,” Doolittle said. “He’s added length to this lineup hitting in that five, six spot. People think once they navigate [Anthony] Rendon and [Juan] Soto…I don’t know if they overlook him a little bit, but it’s almost like they let their guard down and he gets them.”
Kendrick is a Swiss army knife. He can platoon at first base, he fills in at second and third. Martinez chose not to risk him in the outfield this season, where his legs would take an unnecessary pounding. But late in games, he was a weapon off the bench and a nightmare matchup for opposing managers with 13 pinch hits in 36 at bats (.361). And his teammates loved that Kendrick embraced that role.
Because he had signed a two-year contract with Washington before the 2018 season, Kendrick was shielded from the harsh realities of free agency for a soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off an Achilles tear. The Nationals saw how well Kendrick’s rehab was progressing. They were hopeful they’d have his unique skill set back for 2019. But no one knew for sure.
“That was really scary when that happened,” Doolittle said. “But the dude is a beast man.”
Added teammate Adam Eaton: “It’s an Achilles and he’s 30-whatever years old. There’s definitely always a question mark. But if you know Howie and you’re around him, you know he’s one of the hardest workers. He’s dedicated. He knows his body really well and it shows. It’s unbelievable how he’s been able to come back and produce so effectively.”
Kendrick worked on his swing throughout the offseason with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long. They both live in the Phoenix area and the first time Kendrick met Long he was handed a sheet of paper with ideas for how he could develop a more efficient swing. That was unexpected, but welcome.
Kendrick gave former manager Dusty Baker some thanks, too. All that work continued into the 2018 season with Long and Washington assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon, but the injury ruined a good start to the season.
It’s a testament to just how much Washington relies on Kendrick that before his grand slam against the Dodgers he was taking heat maybe for the first time all year. Kendrick had 5 hits in his first 22 playoff at-bats with just one RBI and all his hits were singles. He’d also made three errors in the field at first and second base.
All of that changed with the Game 5 NLDS grand slam that will make him a legend in the District forever. He is 5-for-12 against the Cardinals with four doubles and four RBI in just three games. He and his teammates are one win away from an N.L. pennant. Howie Kendrick is absorbing the moment.
“I enjoy it all because without all the mistakes and all the hardships and all the successes earlier in my career, none of this would be available,” Kendrick said. “None of this would be possible without all that. I talk with Max [Scherzer] quite a bit, and we're like, man, don't you wish you could go back and be how you are now then? And he goes, no, I wouldn't change it because all those failures are helping you with the success now. And I think that's the way I look at it. Even now my failures still help me be successful. You appreciate it even more.”
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