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When Howie Kendrick’s grand slam flew over the wall, giving the Washington Nationals a 7-3 lead, it created a pure, communal type of joy that only sports can provide. There were hugs. High fives. Screams and whoops of bliss. More hugs and more high fives, and almost certainly some weeping.
The explosion of joy and the release of tension in that moment brought together everyone watching the game at the viewing party at Nationals Park, on their TVs at home, bars throughout D.C., or even those following online on Twitter. That shared explosion felt all the more joyous with everything that came before it.
The Nats were down three runs against Dodgers ace Walker Buehler and his 21-and-growing scoreless innings streak. It didn’t matter. They were down with a 19-31 record, after bottoming out against the Mets way back in May. It didn’t matter. And they were down, 0-3, in Game 5s and 0-4 in getting past the dreaded division series.
With Kendrick’s blast to center, none of that mattered—just that release of happiness and that feeling of being part of something together. That homer wasn’t a walkoff, but it felt like one.
Even as terrible as the Nationals bullpen had been all season long, few doubted the lead was safe. For once, the shots of dead-eyed fans standing in shock and eventually heading to the exits happened to be on the other team.
Nats fans have been there. There was no coming back. All that remained was the perfunctory ticking down of outs. Everyone knew the Nats had won, even if the game wasn’t over.
And in those moments, my mind wandered back to Chad Cordero and Brad Wilkerson. To Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. To Jayson Werth and Jordan Zimmermann. So many players who were good but never good enough together to do what this team had finally done.
And what about this team? Patrick Corbin, who had a disastrous relief outing in Game 3, cut through the Dodgers lineup, holding them in place, extending the game long enough to give Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto another crack. Kendrick, who up until Game 5 of the NLDS had made his mark with fielding errors, now owns the biggest moment in this team’s history. Both players had failed and cost the Nats in the series; both came through.
But the most important thing they had in common was the full faith of their manager. Where other managers might have withered in the pressure of a short series and benched his struggling players, Dave Martinez didn’t relent. He knew what both players had done all year. He knew, rightly, that he needed them both.
When Sean Doolittle took the mound to close out that game, there wasn’t any tension, just a celebration. Martinez and the Nats had somehow turned doubt into trust. And all the past playoff pain had led to this moment of shared joy and relief.