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Howie Kendrick's 10th-inning grand slam vaults Nationals into National League Championship Series

Howie Kendrick's 10th-inning grand slam vaults Nationals into National League Championship Series

A story has built around these embracers of chaos. The Nationals don’t like easy, pain management their preferred methodology to the Smurfs-and-rainbows approach. Coming back is an aphrodisiac, one which has vaulted a team from May doom to postseason breakthrough.

Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam made this edition of a Washington baseball team the first to win a postseason series since the 1924 World Series. The Nationals beat the reigning National League champion Dodgers, 7-3, in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The best-of-seven National League Championship Series starts Friday in St. Louis. The Nationals are in it. No need to rub your eyes. You read that right.

Gone are the Game 5 ghosts and the more recent specters of 2018 and the first two months of 2019. Davey Martinez becomes the manager to lead a team out of an enormous rut and past playoff failures. Another epic rally was necessary. Washington was down 3-1 in the eighth inning before back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto off Clayton Kershaw tied the game. They held on until the 10th inning thanks to relief work by Tanner Rainey, Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson. Sean Doolittle finished it in the 10th, his red stirrups pulled to his knees, and hands in the sky.

Getting there, of course, was a challenge.

Immediate indications popped to show the night would not be the same for Stephen Strasburg. Joc Pederson’s leadoff double -- initially ruled a home run -- produced an extra-base hit. Los Angeles did not come up with a hit of any kind against Strasburg in Game 2 until the fifth inning. It had one extra-base hit in his six innings on the mound. Pederson doubled then, too.

Max Muncy, the next batter, continued his personal tormenting of Nationals pitching with a two-run homer. Strasburg allowed two earned runs in 28 postseason innings before the game started. He allowed two in two batters Wednesday night.

An example of the Dodgers’ depth and versatility struck against Strasburg next. Enrique Hernández started in left field because of his defensive ability. Putting Hernández in left allowed Matt Beaty to slide to first. Dave Roberts’ decision produced multiple dividends. Hernández made an excellent catch in the outfield and led off the second inning with a home run to put the Dodgers in front, 3-0. Strasburg endured the precise beginning Max Scherzer did in the Wild-Card Game eight days prior. It shifted Washington into survive-and-rally mode once again.

A small amount of offensive life stirred when the bottom of the order showed up in the top of the fifth. Kurt Suzuki walked. Michael A. Taylor slapped a single to right field. Two on, no one out, a three-run deficit, Strasburg coming up. Patrick Corbin was warming up. Strasburg had thrown 73 pitches to that point. What to do?

He remained in. He attempted to bunt. Eventually, he bunted a 3-2 pitch foul to strike out. No one moved. Trea Turner struck out. No one moved. Adam Eaton flew out to right. Everyone moved back to the dugout. Inning over. 

Strasburg handled the bottom of the fifth. Anthony Rendon doubled to leadoff the top of the sixth before Soto’s single drove him in. But Kendrick’s double play and Ryan Zimmerman’s strikeout squelched anything further against Walker Buehler. Strasburg then dragged himself through the sixth to end his night at 105 pitches. He did not make it through the seventh, further emulating the situation in the Wild-Card Game. Strasburg’s final line: six innings pitched, three earned runs, one walk, seven strikeouts, two home runs allowed. 

Suzuki was hit in the face by a pitch to start the top of the seventh. Buehler’s tailing fastball clipped Suzuki’s left wrist then struck him on the right side of his face, dropping him to the ground. He was removed from the game. Yan Gomes ran for him. Two outs later, Trea Turner walked to put two runners on base and send Roberts to the mound with his left hand up. In came Kershaw. He chewed up Eaton on three pitches. A meltdown followed.

Rendon hit a solo home run. Soto hit a solo home run. Washington tied the game on three ill-fated Kershaw pitches in the eighth inning. His already stained October legacy became further soiled as he crouched on the mound. Roberts walked out to replace him with Kenta Maeda. Kershaw paced into the dugout, then sat alone, head bowed. Soto danced and Scherzer walked around his dugout shouting at no one in particular. 

Corbin worked his way adroitly through the eighth. He struck out pinch-hitter David Freese with a 3-2 slider then pumped his fist. Roberts took a chance in the ninth with reliever Joe Kelly. It worked. He threw nine knuckle-curves among his 10 pitches for a 1-2-3 inning. Hudson was up next for the Nationals in the bottom of the ninth. A Will Smith drive to the track temporarily stopped hearts before it was caught. A line drive to center ended the inning. Kelly returned for the 10th and walked Eaton to start it.

Rendon doubled to the wall to put runners on second and third. Soto was intentionally walked despite left-handed specialist Adam Kolarek being ready in the bullpen. Roberts kept Kelly in the game to face Kendrick, a tactical error which will forever live in both cities.


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Carter Kieboom’s early defensive struggles at third base aren’t a major concern--yet

Carter Kieboom’s early defensive struggles at third base aren’t a major concern--yet

Carter Kieboom is getting his chance.

The 22-year-old infield prospect is competing for the Nationals’ starting job at third base this spring following the departure of Anthony Rendon in free agency. A natural shortstop, Kieboom has started just nine games at third in his professional career but is shifting across the infield because that’s where the Nationals need him.

So far, the early returns have been—well, not great. On Sunday, Kieboom dropped a line drive off the bat of Miami Marlins slugger Jesús Aguilar then sailed the throw over the head off first baseman Eric Thames for his first error of the spring. He picked up his second miscue against the New York Yankees on Tuesday, when he charged a groundball and missed his target while throwing on the run.

The plays aren’t pretty, but that’s what spring training is for.

Competitions are held, young players get their shot, everyone has something they’re working to improve. Kieboom is trying to earn a job at a position he hasn’t played regularly since he was a kid. Mistakes shouldn’t be reasons for alarm, they should be expected.

That being said, Kieboom will only be granted the it’s-still-early grace period for so long. Opening Day is less than a month away, meaning manager Davey Martinez is going to have to make a decision in the next few weeks about what he’s going to do with Kieboom.

If these errors continue, then he won’t be forced into playing Kieboom in the majors. The Nationals have a backup plan in Asdrúbal Cabrera ready to assume the position should Kieboom need more time in the minors to work at the position. Washington is already faced with few clear opportunities for Howie Kendrick to get at-bats, so sending Kieboom down makes it easier for him to make regular starts.

But for now, there’s no reason to panic over Kieboom’s first few errors. As NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes pointed out on the Nationals Talk podcast, the Nationals’ spring training leader in errors was none other than Victor Robles (he had three). You know, the Victor Robles who was a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

Kieboom is getting his chance. It’s just a question of how many the Nationals are going to give him.

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One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

When Bryce Harper signed his then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last March, the stands at Spectrum Field in Clearwater were filled to the brim on a daily basis while the media scrums in the home locker room had twice as many reporters firing questions.

That’s what happens when the most polarizing player in baseball, a former MVP and No. 1 overall pick who’s drawn his fair share of both fans and critics, joins a big-market organization looking to jump back into contention for the first time in almost a decade.

But a year later, with the Phillies having missed the playoffs entirely and much bigger storylines dominating the sport, things have been calmer in Clearwater this spring.

"It's definitely different coming into camp," Harper said Tuesday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. "It's good knowing I'll be here the next 12 years, a lot more calm, not as crazy, not as many cameras. I'll enjoy that and just get ready for the season."

Harper made his spring season debut Tuesday, going 0-1 with a walk and sacrifice fly while playing five innings in right field. With a month to go before the start of the regular season, Harper’s goal for the rest of spring isn’t too complicated.

"Just be healthy," he said. "Take good routes in the outfield, throw the ball well out there, have good at-bats."

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.