WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night appeared to end early, and in blistering fashion, ostensibly over just after the start.
A chunk of tension, modest doubt, and, eventually, a surplus of joy followed. The Nationals scored seven runs in the first inning to define their cushion for the night about 15 minutes into it. Ceremony -- and hanging on late -- remained.
Washington is going to the World Series. Read it again to absorb and believe it, and don’t feel alone in your challenge to consume that sentence. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner labeled the entire situation “surreal” -- from 19-31, to the Wild-Card Game resurrection, to beating the Dodgers in five, to the NLCS romp -- pregame Tuesday. He joked this is how they planned the whole thing.
“Mike [Rizzo] talked about it before the season: let's have a real bad start, turn it around, make it really fun for everybody,” Lerner said with a smile.
No team has done this before, recovering from such a dismal 50-game start to advance to the final round of the postseason. The Nationals’ unlikely entrance into the 2019 World Series stands as a first for the organization and Major League Baseball. They bounced off the iceberg back to safe shores. Starting Oct. 22, they will open the best-of-seven World Series in the American League champion’s home thanks to Tuesday night’s 7-4 win. A flight to Houston or train ride to New York is in the offing.
The recovery was so long -- and slow to be believed -- it’s a well-worn tale. May 23 in a tight visitor’s office at Citi Field, Davey Martinez was adamant the season would turn around. Nothing but his voice indicated the idea was believable. Not math. Not the team’s play. Not the available roster.
“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now," Martinez said after the May 23 loss. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”
Martinez was thrown out of the game that night. Wander Suero gave up a three-homer to lose the lead. The morning trip to the stadium was a fiasco after the charter bus driver took the most traffic-filled route. At the end, players were irritated a train ride was on the horizon instead of a flight. The worst-possible outcome remained a daily achievement only to be outdone by the next day’s misery.
The season pivoted behind hi-jinks, a healthier roster and cleaned-up play. Gerardo Parra introduced uncommon vitality. The starting rotation maintained. Key players -- Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner -- trickled back into the lineup. The bullpen -- nevermind.
Fixing the groups was enough to push the Nationals into a narrow lane for the postseason. As would-be contenders in the division fell off, Washington lasted long enough to host the Wild-Card Game. A late rally launched them to Los Angeles. Down 2-1 in the series, they found a path to consecutive wins. The four-game NLCS stampede against St. Louis followed.
Seven runs, six hits and one of the most truncated starts in postseason history filled the bottom of the first inning Tuesday, paving a path to wrap up the outcome. St. Louis starter Dakota Hudson threw 15 pitches to seven hitters before his removal. Washington turned the game into a romp before St. Louis recorded two outs.
Patrick Corbin moved along swiftly with the lead until a stall in the fifth inning. Three St. Louis runs temporarily squelched the stadium’s party atmosphere. The Cardinals were down 7-4, a gap modest enough to restrict blood flow through the middle of the game.
Tanner Rainey pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning. Nine outs remained for Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson to divide.
Doolittle arrived first via the bullpen cart. Only nine pitches were necessary to move through the seventh inning. He faced the steel of St. Louis’ order, such as it was in the series, in the eighth: José Martínez and Paul Goldschmidt made outs. Marcell Ozuna singled, prompting Doolittle’s removal. Hudson was summoned, assigned four outs, beginning with Yadier Molina, a preeminent face of St. Louis baseball.
Hudson hit Molina with a fastball. He walked Paul DeJong after being ahead 0-2 in the count. With the bases loaded, Matt Carpenter pinch-hit. He rolled a 2-2 pitch to defensive replacement Brian Dozier, just into the game at the same time as Hudson, which Dozier initially knocked down before gathering and throwing. The inning ended. Everyone exhaled.
Hudson returned for the ninth. No one warmed in the bullpen. The entire crowd stood before the inning started. Kolten Wong flew out to left. Pinch-hitter Matt Wieters popped out to catcher Yan Gomes. Tommy Edman flew out to center.
When it was over, a bit after 11 p.m., Hudson threw his hands up and screamed. Everyone streamed out of the dugout and in from the bullpen. The 43,976 in attendance stayed to bask instead of zoom to the Metro. A presentation of the National League championship was to come, one which seemed a million-to-one shot in late May, before so much turned out to be right. Sleeping quietly were 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. A new era started Tuesday night, the one in which the Nationals are National League champions.
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