When did it start to feel like a sure thing? Was it early Tuesday night, when Nationals starter Patrick Corbin took just five minutes to strike out the side in the top of the first inning? Or when the Nats had two runs scored by the time their fourth batter reached the plate, when they’d chased poor Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson out of the game after just 15 pitches, when they closed out that opening frame with a 7-0 lead?
When did you know for sure that the Nationals were headed to the World Series?
Maybe it was earlier. When the Washington starters, already fearsome, collectively calcified this October into something jagged, deflating, lethal. When Juan Soto launched a three-run single into right field; when Howie Kendrick hit that grand slam; when Víctor Robles came back from a hamstring injury and almost immediately homered, dejuiced ball be damned; when Anthony Rendon—well, when Anthony Rendon did pretty much anything.
On Tuesday, the Nats made it official: For the first time in franchise history, they’ve won the pennant, besting St. Louis 7-4, thanks in part to some sloppy first-inning fielding by the Cardinals (three of the seven runs the Nats scored were unearned).
The Nats’ sweep through the NLCS, a steady dismantling of the Cardinals across four games, was almost boring. You might shush your seatmate for saying so—don’t jinx it!—but, well, you can’t jinx a sure thing. The Nationals didn’t trail for so much as a pitch of the 2019 NLCS; they led, in fact, for all but five of the series’ 36 innings. The dominance was baffling to behold; on Tuesday, at least one Nats fan tried to bring a broom into the park. A dare, a vote of confidence, a certainty.
Even when the Cardinals mounted a rally in the fifth inning, loading the bases with no one out and eventually tightening the lead to 7-4 before the Nationals regained control—maybe your pulse quickened, maybe that old fatalism nibbled at the edges. But that was that: The Cardinals didn’t score again.
There have been few sure things for the Nationals in October. Four visits to the NLDS in the space of six years yielded four losses; four processions of fans out of Nats Park, wondering why this team, this great team, with arms and bats and clubhouse guys and everything, couldn’t go all the way. And now, at last, the team has a shot.
Success in the World Series isn’t a sure thing, of course. Nationals starters Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez, who have done so much this month to make their team look invincible, know that lesson unusually well: Both were members of the 2012 Detroit Tigers team that swept the ALCS to reach the World Series—only to be swept there themselves by the San Francisco Giants. The Nationals will now meet either the 107-win Houston Astros or the 103-win New York Yankees—formidable foes, both with quite a bit of recent experience on the stage that the Nationals will arrive on for the very first time. The Nats were fiery throughout the NLCS, but it’s also true that the Cardinals seemed simultaneously to wilt. Neither the Yankees nor the Astros, who currently carry a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, are likely to fold so easily.
But for now, the Nationals can simply relish the victory, the first Washington team to reach the World Series since 1933. The Nats adopted the motto “Stay in the fight” after the grim first month of the season. Mock it all you want (I have), but that’s precisely what they’ve done. They stayed in the wild-card race, as the rest of the National League nipped at their heels; then in the wild-card game against the Brewers, as they trailed by two runs in the eighth inning; then in the NLDS, as they faced elimination in Game 4; then in the NLDS’s Game 5, when the Nats once again trailed by two runs in the eighth; and all the way through the NLCS. They have found themselves in fight after fight after fight, and each time, they have found a way to keep going. For this, they will be treated to one more.
For Soto, who turns 21 on October 25—a.k.a. the day of Game 3 of the World Series—the stakes have a personal lilt. Who knows? His first legal sips of bubbly might just be on national television.