It had been a pretty miserable National League Division Series for Howie Kendrick when the Washington Nationals second baseman stepped into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and no outs in the 10th inning of Wednesday night’s winner-take-all Game 5 in Dodger Stadium.
Kendrick, the former Angels and Dodgers infielder, had four hits in his first 19 series at-bats, and he helped kill a potential sixth-inning rally with a double-play grounder Wednesday night.
The 36-year-old veteran committed three errors in the five games, including two in Game 1 — one that cost the Nationals the second run in a 6-0 loss — and another in the third inning in Game 5.
Not only was Kendrick not very good, he wasn’t having much luck — he was robbed of a double and an RBI when Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger made a spectacular leaping catch at the top of the wall of Kendrick’s fourth-inning drive off Dodgers starter Walker Buehler on Wednesday night.
With all that he had endured in the series, was Kendrick hoping for a situation like the one that presented itself in the 10th inning?
“You know what?” Kendrick said about half an hour later in a champagne-and-beer-drenched visitors clubhouse, “I was hoping for any moment.”
What a moment he had. Behind in the count 0-and-1, Kendrick dropped the barrel of his bat on Joe Kelly’s 97-mph low-and-inside fastball and drove it over the center-field wall for the first extra-inning grand slam in a winner-take-all game in postseason history.
Kendrick’s homer pushed Washington to a 7-3 victory before a stunned Dodger Stadium crowd of 54,159, giving the team its first playoff series win in franchise history and a berth opposite St. Louis in the NL Championship Series.
“Being able to be in that situation and to actually come through in that situation, that means a lot,” said Kendrick, who missed most of the 2018 season because of a torn Achilles tendon. “I was telling the guys earlier, that’s probably the best moment of my career.”
Adam Eaton sparked the 10th-inning rally with a leadoff walk off Kelly, and Anthony Rendon, who teamed with Juan Soto for back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw that tied the score in the eighth, doubled off the left-field wall, advancing Eaton to third. Soto was intentionally walked to load the bases for Kendrick.
“He missed two balls earlier in the game, but you could see in his eyes that he knew what was going on,” Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar said of Kendrick. “He was just missing pitches. I was very thankful he was the guy up in that situation because I knew he was going to do something positive.
“He’s just that type of hitter. He knows how to handle the strike zone, he knows what to look for in those counts and you know he’s going to take a good swing.”
Kendrick fouled off Kelly’s first pitch, an 87.8-mph breaking ball.
“He’s been throwing a lot of breaking balls, and he threw me one on the first pitch, but for some reason I had a gut feeling, just, ‘Hey, stay with the fastball,’” Kendrick said.
“I was looking for something I could drive. I just tried to put a good swing on it. I don’t know how or why, but I happened to get the barrel on it.”
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo knows exactly how and why Kendrick got the barrel on the ball and drove it 410 feet to center field. Kendrick has been doing it for an entire season in which he hit .344 with 17 homers, 23 doubles and 62 RBIs in 121 games.
“We had the right man up in the right spot,” Rizzo said. “He’s a professional hitter, a good contact hitter, he’s good with velocity, he elevates the baseball, and you just know he’s gonna shorten up and put the barrel on the bat there.
“The guy’s gonna drive in a run. I didn’t know he’d drive in four, but when you need a professional at bat and a big run batted in, he’s as good as you can get.”
Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle retired the side in order in the bottom of the 10th, and the Nationals, a team that was 19-31 and on the brink of being buried in the NL East in mid-May, dog-piled one another near second base. Later, for a team photo on the mound, his teammates chanted, “Howie! Howie!”
In the clubhouse, Rizzo marveled at how his club, led by second-year manager Davey Martinez and a nice blend of veterans like Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer and youngsters such as Soto and Victor Robles, got this far.
“They haven’t quit all year, man,” Rizzo said. “We’ve been playing in these tough games since late May. A lot of teams would have folded, pointed fingers. This team is resilient, a class act, a professional bunch.
“The combination of young and old meshes perfectly, and Davey just brought them all together.”