HOUSTON — Late Tuesday night, after the Washington Nationals had forced the 40th winner-take-all game in World Series history, reliever Sean Doolittle considered their journey. The first 50 games of their season had been a sinkhole, with 31 losses and untold angst for a team synonymous with letdown.
They rallied to make the playoffs, trailing in every elimination game but continuing to fulfill their official team motto: Stay in the fight. You could knock them down, as the Houston Astros did over three nights last weekend at Nationals Park. But you could not finish off these Nationals.
“It just feels like it’s the most 2019 Nats thing for this to come down to Game 7 of the World Series,” Doolittle said. “We’re not surprised. We know what’s at stake and we’re going to be ready.”
At stake was the first World Series title in the nation’s capital in 95 years. That was so long ago that two franchises have since left Washington — one for Minnesota, the other for Texas — and the city was without baseball entirely for 33 years.
The drought ended in 2005, when Major League Baseball moved the orphaned Montreal Expos to town. It took first-round knockouts in four different seasons before the Nationals advanced in the playoffs, proof that nothing happens in Washington without epic struggle and strife.
So, yes, it was fitting that this franchise’s first World Series would go the distance — and also, perhaps, that it would take an uncharted path not only in the annals of baseball, but also of the N.B.A. and the N.H.L.; for the first time ever — in any of those leagues — the road team won every game of a best-of-seven series.
Leave it to the Nationals to endure such a struggle and stand triumphant at the end. They edged the Astros, 6-2, in Game 7 on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, and forged yet another comeback to do it. The Nationals played five elimination games this postseason, overcoming a deficit in every one.
This time, they entered the top of the seventh inning with one hit and no runs against Astros starter Zack Greinke, a pitcher who might be headed for the Hall of Fame. They got a homer from Anthony Rendon with one out, then a walk by Juan Soto to chase Greinke from the game.
Will Harris came in to pitch, and the veteran Howie Kendrick drove Harris’s best pitch — a cutter, down and a way — off the right field foul pole for a go-ahead homer.
Kendrick had already earned a spot in Nationals’ lore with his tiebreaking grand slam in the division series clincher at Dodger Stadium. In the next round, a sweep against the St. Louis Cardinals, he was named the series’ Most Valuable Player.
At 36, Kendrick symbolizes the team’s investment in veterans — its roster is the oldest in the majors by average age — and thrived in a part-time role; his .344 average was the best in the majors for players with at least 300 at-bats. His back story nearly mirrors his team’s: Kendrick reached the majors in 2006 and had taken seven trips to the postseason before this October, never making it to the World Series.
When he did, after the Cardinals series, he joined Ryan Zimmerman — a career National, the team’s first-ever draft pick after moving to Washington — at a news conference and reflected on their rocky itinerary.
“You’ve got to earn it, man,” Kendrick said. “All the things in the past, all the failures, and losing in the first round — because I’ve been there, too, just like him. It just makes it sweet because, as we’re getting older, the game keeps getting younger. But to see a team like us continue to grind — and I think the mixture of people that we do have is what makes us so good. The chemistry that we do have, we understand each other. I feel like being around this long, I wouldn’t change anything about the past.”
The Nationals might, of course. Who wouldn’t want another ring or two, if only to validate the consistent success General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff have generated since the team’s first division title in 2012? It was with this roster, though, that Rizzo finally found the right headliners: a seasoned superstar in Rendon, a rising sensation in Soto, and three aces — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Scherzer started the first and last games of the World Series, missing his Game 5 assignment with intense neck spasms on Sunday. He could not even get himself dressed, he said, and wore a neck brace for the flight to Houston. But after a cortisone shot and a day of rest, Scherzer was prowling the Nationals’ bullpen in Game 6 on Tuesday.
“So I’m assuming you’ll see vintage Mad Max out there,” Zimmerman said before Game 7, “huffing and puffing and doing what he does.”
What Scherzer does, more often than anyone else in the 2010s, is strike hitters out. But the Astros’ hitters had the fewest strikeouts in the majors this season, making contact consistently without sacrificing power.
Even with seven days off from pitching, Scherzer could not get much past them on Wednesday. The Astros did not strike out until the fourth, and Scherzer generated just 11 swings-and-misses among his 103 pitches. He lasted just five innings, walking four and striking out three. It was his first start in more than seven years with more walks than strikeouts.
Even so, Scherzer allowed only two runs. Strasburg had already won Games 2 and 6, working into the ninth inning on Tuesday, and so it fell to Corbin to follow Scherzer and stifle the Astros, fulfilling the $140 million contract he signed as a free agent last winter.
The Nationals outbid the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies for Corbin in free agency, making a six-year commitment. It was risky, perhaps, but worth it for the glory of Game 7 — the greatest victory in the history of a luckless franchise in a city that had waited nearly a century for a night like this.