Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured member of the Washington Nationals, the franchise’s first draft pick after relocating from Montreal in 2005, the guy who has experienced it all, from the 100-loss seasons to the most improbable championship run in recent baseball history, reveled in the celebration late Wednesday night.
Zimmerman had just hoisted the World Series trophy on the stage set in the middle of a chilly Minute Maid Park after the Nationals used another late-inning comeback, their October signature, to defeat the Houston Astros 6-2 in a winner-take-all Game 7.
Max Scherzer, three days removed from being unable to lift his right arm, couldn’t hold back the tears after grinding through five innings. Dave Martinez, the manager not expected to survive the season, was surrounded by family. Ted Lerner, the club’s 94-year-old original principal owner, was nearby absorbing the moment he envisioned when he brought baseball to Washington.
Zimmerman had trouble describing what was happening around him as he thought about what had occurred on this night and over the last five months since they were left for dead. But he was not surprised.
“What a weird year,” Zimmerman said. “What a weird team. We just kept going, man. Could’ve quit. Could’ve rolled over. But this group of guys, we bounce back. It’s almost fitting that we won this way.”
The Nationals roared back from a 19-31 record on May 24 — becoming a loose, easygoing, bunch of dancers and huggers along the way — to claim a postseason berth. They won the National League wild-card game on a fluky late-inning hit and error. They stunned the 106-win Dodgers in an NL Division Series and they plowed through the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
But those conquests did not compare to the stakes presented Wednesday night. They were nine outs from squandering a chance to claim the first championship in franchise history. The Astros, the 107-win machine pushed to the brink, held a two-run lead. The deficit felt insurmountable with Zack Greinke on the mound and the weapons at the Astros’ disposal behind him. Greinke was dealing. For the first six innings, the Nationals did not stand a chance.
The Nationals, a group seasoned in anxiety, did not wither. Anthony Rendon, wreaking havoc on his hometown team, homered against Greinke to draw blood. Juan Soto, the 21-year-old wunderkind, followed with a walk. The free pass prompted manager A.J. Hinch to replace Greinke with Will Harris.
“I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late,” Hinch said.
The move initiated the next phase in the Astros’ demise.
Two pitches later, Howie Kendrick, the man who ended the Dodgers’ season with a grand slam before being selected NLCS most valuable player, slashed a two-run home run off the screen on the right-field foul pole to complete the Nationals’ final, and greatest, come-from-behind win.
The Astros were denied their second championship in three years as the road team won each of the seven games of a Series for the first time. The Nationals, the oldest team in the majors, concluded the postseason 5-0 in elimination games and eight straight road victories. Stephen Strasburg was selected Series MVP after giving up four runs in 141/3 innings across two starts.
Strasburg delivered the performance the Nationals needed when they faced elimination in Game 6. They needed Scherzer on Wednesday.
Scherzer wasn’t supposed to start Game 7. He was slated to pitch in Game 5 on Sunday, but neck spasms left him unable to lift his right arm. He was scratched, the Nationals started Joe Ross, and the Astros won the game.
Scherzer received a cortisone injection Sunday morning hoping the discomfort would subside with rigorous treatment. The plan worked, but Martinez didn’t know what he would get from Scherzer. He was certain of one thing: He was going to push Scherzer as far as he could. Martinez followed through on his promise, running through red lights to push Scherzer through five innings.
The Astros were comfortable against Scherzer. His usual command wasn’t there and he wasn’t missing many bats. The Astros, however, left seven runners on base and scored only two runs through five innings. His performance was gutsy, and Martinez’s faith was risky.
Scherzer took the mound in the fifth inning without movement in the Nationals bullpen. And with two outs, Carlos Correa lined a run-scoring single down the left-field line to add some cushion. The Astros were threatening for more. Runners were on the corners for Robinson Chirinos. A hit would’ve been deflating for Washington. But Scherzer wiggled free again to conclude his performance.
“He fought through some unbelievable innings and he kept us in the ballgame,” Martinez said. “That’s all we can ask from Max.”
The escape was crucial. Greinke was mowing through the Nationals. They had one hit and one walk through six innings. The five-time Gold Glove winner was vacuuming every batted ball in his vicinity. The former Dodger was dialing his curveball down to 66 mph, which allowed for his 89-mph fastball to overwhelm hitters. He needed only 67 pitches to secure 18 outs. It all changed so quickly.
After Rendon homered and Soto walked, Hinch gave the ball to Harris to face Kendrick for his 12th playoff appearance of the postseason 24 hours after giving up a pivotal two-run home run to Rendon in Game 6.
Harris started the encounter with a curveball. Kendrick whiffed. The next pitch was a 91-mph cutter low and away, tucked in a corner of the strike zone. It was a well-located pitch. But Kendrick stayed through the offering, hitting it down the right-field line. The line drive sliced for its entire flight until it caromed off the screen on the foul pole in front of a stunned George Springer in right field.
Kendrick raced around the bases. He yelled and clenched his fists. He had put the Nationals ahead again, when the stakes were at their highest, and on the path to an implausible championship.
“This is the most 2019 Nats thing ever,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “Winning Game 7 like this.”