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Nationals Face Unfamiliar Challenge After Vanquishing Playoff Demons

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:07 PM
David Salituro
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:07 PM

The ending to Game 5 of the NLDS was all too familiar to the Washington Nationals: A team a few outs away from advancing onto the next round, only to have victory snatched away.

Only this time, it was the Nationals on the winning end of it. Howie Kendrick ’s 10th-inning grand slam knocked off the heavily-favored Los Angeles Dodgers 7-3 and sent the Nationals to the NLCS for the first time since the franchise relocated to the nation’s capital after the 2004 season.

Nationals exorcise ghosts of postseasons past

Beating the two-time defending NL champion Dodgers was a turning point for a franchise that endured years of heartbreaking postseason losses. In 2012, the Nationals led the St. Louis Cardinals 7-5 going into the ninth inning of Game 5 and twice were a strike away from winning the series. The Cardinals scored four runs with two outs to win 9-7.

In 2016, Washington held a slim 1-0 lead going into the seventh before suffering a 4-2 defeat. One year later, the Nationals took an early 4-1 Game 5 lead over the Chicago Cubs before losing 9-8, with Bryce Harper striking out to end the series.

Harper, the franchise’s longtime cornerstone, is in Philadelphia now, and with him went the Nationals’ playoff chances in 2019. Or so it appeared when the Nationals began the season 19-31, second-worst in the NL. They ended the year going 74-38, tied with the Dodgers for the NL’s best record.

Manager Dave Martinez was managing for his job back in May, and he couldn’t be prouder of his team’s resilience .

“I’m really excited, one for those boys in the clubhouse that fought all year,” he said after beating the Dodgers on Wednesday. “As you all know, we were 19-31 at one point and turned this thing around. So, I’ve said this all year long, these guys, this group, is resilient. They won’t quit until the last out. And they play hard every single day.”

The star who’s not old enough to drink

Behind the Nationals’ resurgence were 20-year-old outfielder Juan Soto  and third baseman Anthony Rendon , who hit back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday to force extra innings. Soto joined Miguel Cabrera, Andruw Jones, and Mickey Mantle as the only under-21 players to hit home runs in winner-take-all postseason games.

Rendon, a free-agent-to-be, played his way into MVP consideration. After Aug. 1, Rendon was sixth in the NL with a .323 batting average and second with 46 RBIs.

Cardinals look to stop Nationals celebration

However, the Nationals still have work ahead against the Cardinals, who were also written off as playoff contenders this year. They lost their first game after the All-Star break to fall to 44-45 but won 47 games from then on, best in the NL.

The Cardinals’ brand of small-ball is atypical of teams in 2019. They ranked 24th in home runs this season, lowest among playoff teams. In Game 5 against the Atlanta Braves, they scored 10 runs in the first inning without a single home run on their way to a convincing 13-1 win.

The winning pitcher in that game might determine who wins the NLCS. Jack Flaherty , the Cardinals’ 23-year-old right-hander, ended the season on a historic run, giving as many runs after the All-Star break (10) as the Cardinals scored in one inning against Atlanta. His 0.91 ERA in the second half was the third-lowest since 1934.

Behind Flaherty, Game 1 starter Miles Mikolas  has already staged a fairy-tale comeback, leading the NL with 18 wins last year after spending three seasons in Japan.

Nationals counter with their own mound trio

The Nationals have their own starting pitchers capable of shutting down any opposing lineup. Stephen Strasburg  went into Game 5 against the Dodgers with a 0.64 career postseason ERA, the best of any pitcher with at least 28 innings. While he gave up two early home runs to Max Muncy and Kike Hernandez, he recovered to hold the Dodgers scoreless for the next five.

Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer  will pitch in his hometown of St. Louis, both as a starter and relief pitcher. Martinez won’t hesitate to use Scherzer or Patrick Corbin , the Nationals’ other All-Star starting pitcher, out of the bullpen if needed.

Game 1 is scheduled for 8:08 pm ET tonight. Both teams proved naysayers wrong just to get here. Only one, though, will continue the ride all the way into the World Series.