HOUSTON — They used to call the old Houston Astrodome the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Maybe we need a nickname for what transpired Wednesday at Minute Maid Park in Game 7 of the World Series. Something like the Seventh-Inning Shocker might work.
Or just call it this: The inning that made the Washington Nationals the World Series champions, as Howie Kendrick once again played postseason superhero. Kendrick’s two-run home run off the foul pole in right off Will Harris gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead and was one of the most dramatic Game 7 homers in World Series history. How we got to that point will be debated and discussed and argued about all winter.
Should Zack Greinke have remained in the game? Should Gerrit Cole have come in? What happens if that 2-1 pitch to Juan Soto is called a strike? Is Anthony Rendon a man or a cold-hearted, lethal, pitcher-devouring machine?
The 6-2 victory capped the most unlikely of World Series. The road team won all seven games. That had never happened before. Only the baseball gods can understand how this stuff plays out sometimes. The team that started 19-31 is the World Series champion — for the first time in franchise history, going back to its birth in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, and the first time for a Washington baseball team since the Senators in the halcyon days of 1924.
The Nationals trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning of the wild-card game. They trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning of the final game of the division series against the Dodgers. This time they decided not to wait that long. Manager Dave Martinez likes to say, “Let’s go 1-0 today.” The Nats went 1-0 in the biggest game of the season.
“You know what, this is — I mean, honestly, all these years, all this hard work — this year, the struggles early — I mean, this is what it’s about right here,” Kendrick told Buster Olney in the immediate aftermath of the on-field celebration as Max Scherzer gave him a big hug. “This is what it’s about. I mean, words can’t even describe this feeling. It’s phenomenal — this group of guys that we got here — we fought all year. This makes it sweet; this is so sweet right now.”
The seventh inning was the sweetest of all. Through six innings, the Astros led 2-0. Greinke had allowed just one hit and two baserunners and had stolen the script from the back-from-the-dead Scherzer, who allowed two runs in five innings, battling through baserunner after baserunner on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff. Given that Scherzer could barely move his right arm three days ago, it was a remarkable and gutty performance.
“He was in the training room, he was getting his treatment and he was nonstop,” Anthony Rendon said. “The only thing he didn’t have on was a neck brace. We can tell you all that. But man, he was trying to come out here so bad. For him to come back out here and put in work within these last few days, and get back on the mound, it’s a testament to who he is.”
Greinke had thrown just 67 pitches, befuddling the Nationals with his array of 89 mph fastballs, changeups and slow curves, including one big blooper to Soto in the fifth inning that clocked in at 65.8 mph. Soto was so befuddled that he struck out on a checked swing on a changeup two pitches later.
The Nationals were batting around for the third time, and Adam Eaton, the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, led off the inning with a ground out. At that moment, eight outs from victory with a 2-0 lead and nobody on base, the Astros had an 88% chance to win, according to ESPN’s win probability model.
Up stepped Rendon, the man everyone likes to say has the slowest heartbeat in the game. This is not a guy who is going to carry his bat to first base — not even when he homers in Game 7 of the World Series. Which he did. Then the Nats were down a run.
Soto, the 21-year-old phenom with the plate discipline of Ted Williams and the bravado of the game’s newest superstar, was up next. He worked the count to 2-1 and took a changeup at the knees. Ball three. Those in favor of robot umpires will stash that call away. He walked on the next pitch.
That brought up the 36-year-old Kendrick, who hit .344 on the season, who hit the series-winning grand slam against the Dodgers, who won MVP honors in the National League Championship Series. AJ Hinch went to his bullpen. Cole had started to get loose in the fifth inning, but Harris had been the Astros’ best reliever all season and in the postseason, though Rendon tagged him for the crucial home run in Game 6.
Kendrick swung and missed at a curveball and then lined a cutter low and away off the foul pole. Pretty good pitch. Better swing. Estimated distance: 336 feet. Actual distance: immeasurable joy for Nationals fans.
“I’ve seen [Harris] a few times; he’s gotten me out every time — I think he struck me out every time I faced him. At our place, he threw me a cutter away like that, I took it, and I was just looking for something out over the plate I could hammer and he made that mistake — and man, that was probably one of the best swings of my career, just like that grand slam.Moments like that, you can’t make those up.”
It was the fourth lead-changing home run in Game 7 history and the first since Willie Stargell of the Pirates against the Orioles in 1979. The Nationals tacked on another run in the eighth and two more in the ninth. Cole never did get in the game. Patrick Corbin excelled in three dominant innings of relief work. The Nationals became just the fifth team in World Series history to overcome a multirun deficit in the seventh inning or later of Game 7, joining the 1997 Marlins (vs. Indians), 1960 Pirates (vs. Yankees), 1925 Pirates (vs. Senators), 1924 Senators (vs. Giants).
That capped perhaps the most impressive playoff run in the wild-card era: The Nationals’ three opponents after they beat the Brewers in the wild-card game — the Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros — combined for 304 wins, the most for a World Series winner since the expanded playoffs began in 1995.
“I don’t think I can handle this,” Houston’s Jose Altuve said. “It’s really hard to lose Game 7 of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could. … We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”
The Astros are a superpower, a team that has won 100-plus games three seasons in a row. But they didn’t have superhero Howie in their lineup. The Nationals are champs: 1-0.